Americans now drink more bottled water than soda.
Bottled-water consumption in the U.S. hit 39.3 gallons per capita last year, while carbonated soft drinks fell to 38.5 gallons, marking the first time that soda was knocked off the top spot, according to data from industry tracker Beverage Marketing Corp. But Soda is still more expensive, racking up $39.5 billion in retail sales versus $21.3 billion for water, industry research group Euromonitor found.
“In 2016, bottled water overtook carbonates to become the leading soft drinks category in off-trade volume terms, an astonishing milestone a decade in the making,” it said.
While the fizzy soda category has experienced an annual volume sales decline since 2003, bottled water grew every year over the last two decades, except 2009 during the depths of the Great Recession, driven by consumer concerns about the effects of artificial sweeteners and sugar.
More than one-quarter of bottled water revenue last year was shared by the soda giants Coca-Cola Co. KO, +0.62% and PepsiCo PEP, +0.52% which sell Dasani and Aquafina respectively. In the four decades since the launch of Perrier water in the U.S., consumption of bottled water surged 2,700%, from 354 million gallons in 1976 to 11.7 billion gallons in 2015, according to the International Bottled Water Association.
Bottled water also had another unexpected boost aside from skittishness over sodas. Scares over possible water contamination have helped boost demand for bottled water over the last few decades, experts say.
Some 700,000 Californians may be exposed to contaminated water, according to California’s Water Resources Control Board. And in Toledo, Ohio in 2014, the Ohio National Guard distributed bottled water to residents due to contaminated water there. A federal state of emergency was declared in Flint, Mich. in January 2016 and residents were told to use bottled water for both drinking and bathing due to faulty and old lead pipes.
But what people don’t know: When they buy bottled water, they are often times drinking the same water that comes out of the tap. “The general public thinks bottled water is going to be safer and cleaner than tap water,” says Mae Wu, attorney in the health program at National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “For the most part, that’s not true.”
Some 45% of bottled water brands are sourced from the municipal water supply—the same source as what comes out of the tap, according to Peter Gleick, a scientist and author of “Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.”
Those within the industry say that doesn’t mean it’s the same as tap water. A spokesman for the International Bottled Water Association says purified and spring water must meet Food & Drug Administration quality standards. (Dasani and Aquafina use a public water source, but both companies say the water is filtered for purity using a “state-of-the-art” process.) And, as the industry expands, more bottled waters are available with different flavors, carbonation and vitamins.
Bottled water is not without chemicals, according to studies of European bottled waters carried out in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France — one published in 2011 and the other in 2013 — by the Goethe University Frankfurt’s Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology. Among the main compounds Wagner found: Endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which can act like hormones in the body and have been linked to diabetes, breast cancer and cardiovascular disease. (The International Bottled Water Association said the origin of these EDCs may have been environmental rather than from a packaging material.)
Plastic soda and water bottles are also clogging up landfills and floating as vast vortices on the world’s oceans. Americans discard around 33.6 million tons of plastic each year, but only 6.5% of that recycled and 7.7% is combusted in waste-to-energy facilities, according to Columbia University’s Earth Center.The U.S. was recently ranked 20th among 192 countries that could have contributed to plastic waste in the oceans, according to a 2015 study led by Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia and published in the academic journal Science.
Another 2015 study estimated that the accumulated number of microplastic particles in 2014 weighed between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons, which is only 1% of global plastic waste estimated to enter the ocean in one year. What’s more, consumers can purify their own tap water for a fraction of the cost of a $2 bottle of water or soda. (Prices start at $5.)
Still, soda and sugary drinks may lead to an estimated 184,000 deaths each year among adults from diabetes, heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses, according to a landmark 2015 study by researchers at Tufts University published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. The study analyzed consumption patterns from 611,971 individuals between 1980 and 2010 across 51 countries, along with data on national availability of sugar in 187 countries. (The American Beverage Association published a lengthy rebuttal: “The authors themselves acknowledge that they are at best estimating effects of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.”)
But sugar-shy consumers are shying away from diet soda too. Several recent studies have linked diet soda and cardiovascular disease and showed a correlation (if not a causation) between cancer and aspartame. The beverage industry says people who are overweight and already at risk for heart disease may consume more diet drinks in an attempt to control their weight and the Food and Drug Administration has ruled that artificial sweeteners are safe.
Last year, Pepsi announced that it will sell Diet Pepsi with both aspartame, the diet sweetener typically used in sweeteners like Equal, and sucralose, used in Splenda.
Unlike bottled water, however, they’re both artificial.