The ‘Benefits’ of Alkaline Water
‘Come and try our ionized alkaline water, guaranteed to slow aging! We can even install the entire dispensing unit in your home so your family can enjoy it too!’ Trips to the mall these days are often accompanied by the incessant promotion of such products and salespeople preaching about the ‘benefits’ of alkaline water. Worryingly, the trend doesn’t seem to be going away, which means this absurd marketing ploy is working. In reality, the manufacturer’s bottom line is the only benefit that can be gained out of alkaline water, and we’re going to expose the pseudoscience behind it in this article.
The alkaline water market has grown from a $47m business in 2014 to a $427m business in 2017 – that’s almost 10x growth in revenue over just 3 years! To look closely and objectively at the claims about what alkaline water can do, we must first explain what alkalinity and pH actually mean. After all, we can’t make claims without real science-based evidence to back it up (that would be pseudoscience). If you have a good understanding of pH, feel free to skip to the section which explains how our bodies handle water of different pH values. Finally, we will discuss the success factors and shady marketing schemes of alkaline water manufacturers.
Table of Contents
pH and Water
What is pH?
Pure water comes nicely packaged as molecules of H2O. On rare occasions, random fluctuations of energy can cause two molecules of water to react with one another. A hydrogen ion (H+, also known as a proton) moves from one water molecule to another in this reaction: 2H2O → H3O++ OH–, forming two ions with opposing charges. What we’re interested in is the overall concentration of H3O+ (often simplified to H+) at any one time. In pure water, we have equal amounts of H+ and OH– ions: 1.0 x 10-7 M (moles per liter).
1.0 x 10-7 M is often converted into the nice integer of 7 by taking the negative of its base 10 logarithm (known as the pH). pH, or ‘power of hydrogen’, is a nice way of representing [H+] (concentration of H+) in a solution because a 1 unit increase or decrease represents a 10-fold change in moles per liter. For example, a pH 7 solution is 10 times more acidic than a pH 8 solution and 100 times less than that of a pH 5 solution.
We know that pure water is a ‘neutral’ liquid with a pH of 7. Any solution with a pH below 7 is therefore termed to be ‘acidic’, while solutions with a pH greater than 7 are called ‘alkaline’. A comprehensive guide to pH can be found here.
Acidic and Alkaline Water
We know that if we deviate from a neutral pH, water can either have more H+ (acidic) or more OH– (alkaline). This occurs when other molecules dissolve in water, which is rather common as water is a good solvent for many chemicals. Some chemicals don’t change the pH of water when dissolved; for example, NaCl splits into Na+ and Cl– ions without affecting [H+] or [OH–]. Other molecules increase [H+] (therefore decreasing pH) and turn water acidic; for example, dissolving CO2 in water will lead to the formation of carbonic acid (H2CO3) which is acidic. This reversible buffer system is also active in our blood, keeping pH at optimal levels.
CO2 + H2O → H2CO3 → H++ HCO3–
Other minerals initiate a release of OH– when dissolved, causing an increase in pH which turns pure water alkaline. A common example is calcium carbonate (CaCO3), as well as magnesium and sodium (all three of which are commonly found in drinking water).
CaCO3 + H2O → Ca2+ + HCO3– + OH–
The Effects of Water pH on the Body
Our blood requires a pH between 7.35 and 7.45 for our tissues to function properly; anything outside of this range leads to acid-base disorders. Blood that is either too acidic (acidosis) or too alkaline (alkalosis) leads to a range of negative health effects. In severe cases, heart problems can develop, leading to low blood pressure, shock, coma, and even death.
The water we get from the tap has a pH between 6.5 to 8.5, and that’s just fine for our bodies to handle. The human body is a remarkable machine. After all, it’s the product of billions of years of evolution. Given our need to acquire water in order to survive, our bodies have developed ways to cope with pH-diverse water. These extremely efficient buffer systems allow us to enjoy a range of delicious beverages without serious side effects.
The first line of defense is actually the stomach and intestines. The stomach maintains an extremely acidic environment of around pH 2, while our intestines sit at pH 6-7. Apart from being useful in digesting, stomach acid helps neutralize the alkalinity of incoming food and drinks. In fact, prolonged vomiting and loss of stomach acid can lead to alkalosis1. All the acidic contents in your stomach are then neutralized by secretions in the intestines, so by the time water is absorbed by the large intestine, it’s pretty much close to neutral.
The second set of buffer systems is our lungs and kidneys. As mentioned earlier, dissolved carbon dioxide causes an increase in pH. When we breathe, we remove CO2 from our blood. Our brains naturally increase the rate of respiration when our blood pH is too low (acidosis) and decrease respiration rate when pH is too high (alkalosis). Our kidneys also help out by filtering excess H+ ions, sending bicarbonate ions (HCO3–) back into the bloodstream.
Bicarbonate ions work with their conjugate acid—carbonic acid (H2CO3)—to keep blood pH within acceptable limits. Excess H+ ions are captured by bicarbonate and converted to carbonic acid, which is then converted to carbon dioxide to be removed by the lungs.
H+ + HCO3– → H2CO3 → CO2 + H2O
Other buffer systems exist, such as proteins that are able to sequester H+ and OH– ions. These are especially important for maintaining the pH environment within the cell itself.
Benefits of Alkaline Water?
By now, it’s clear that there really isn’t any point in drinking alkaline water. All those claims that alkaline water can somehow ‘neutralize’ our body’s acidity are rubbish. Our bodies maintain very efficient systems that keep pH within an extremely narrow range – a bottle of pH 10 ionized alkaline water isn’t going to change that. Or at least, you hope it doesn’t.
Furthermore, there is nothing in the scientific literature that supports the supposed health benefits of alkaline water or an ‘alkaline-rich diet’. Yes, that includes ionized alkaline water, antioxidant alkaline water, [insert random keyword here] alkaline water… you get the picture. Your body is smart enough to adjust for small changes in the pH of water that you consume, but that doesn’t mean you should push it to its limits.
While alkaline water consumption may not pose much of a risk in the short term, it may turn out to be the cause of long-term health issues. A 2001 study on rats on an alkaline water diet showed signs of growth retardation, although the exact cause was not determined2. If alkaline water confers no conceivable benefit, is it really worth the potential risk?
Alkaline Water – Another Marketing Scam
Despite the fact that alkaline water really has nothing going for it, it continues to sell well. Fueled by fearmongering tactics, aggressive promotion and the existence of certain regulatory loopholes, unscrupulous companies continue to profit from the ill-informed public.
Feeding on Public Fear
‘Money can be earned, but good health can’t be bought’. Staying healthy and free of disease is a top priority for the majority of the population. Many alkaline water companies even go so far as to claim that alkaline water kills cancer cells, as they ‘thrive at pH 7.4 but can’t survive in a highly alkaline environment’. Well, that’s sort of true… because no human cells can survive in such an environment! When that happens, we die – cancer cells and all.
Alkaline water companies make use of catchphrases like ‘acidic water is bad’ and ‘alkaline water at a higher pH is good’. The word ‘acid’ tends to have negative connotations; nobody wants their drinking water to be corrosive or be associated with the dangerous chemicals used in car batteries.
They also misrepresent the use of the pH scale to promote their brand under the guise that ‘higher is better and more effective’ when it comes to doing whatever alkaline water does. Many people may not be able to explain what pH is exactly, but anyone can purchase a pH kit to determine how acidic or alkaline something is.
Furthermore, people want to feel like they’re in control. Promoters sell the concept of having control over what we drink, instead of placing blind trust in supplied water sources. ‘Water from the taps could be contaminated with metals and other chemicals that turn it acidic. This is terrible for your health! What we have for sale is a brand-new ionizing antioxidant alkaline water filtration machine. We’ll even help you install it! Here’s a free pH meter, so you can compare the pH of the water before and after filtration!’ You get the idea…
The Regulatory Loopholes
Companies will always proudly announce that their products have been registered with the regulatory agency of their country. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees the sale of such products. The thing is, many regulatory agencies (the FDA included) do not require approval for food products to be sold! As long as alkaline water isn’t marketed as a drug, there is no review performed by regulatory agencies, only a simple registration which companies are happy to comply with.
This has an added benefit that companies are able to market alkaline water as being beneficial to health despite having no scientific evidence to back it up. How is this allowed? The key loophole in the FDA requirements is the distinction between ‘Health Claims’ and ‘Structure/Function Claims’ on food labels.
While food labels cannot state that they cure or treat any kind of disease, they can claim to reduce the risk of certain diseases. Such health claims might say, for example, ‘each serving contains 3 grams of soluble fiber which, when taken daily alongside a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease’. Health claims are required to be reviewed and evaluated by the FDA prior to their use, with scientific evidence required to back them.
There are also other claims that don’t mention diseases at all. Instead, they describe the effect that a substance has on the structure or function of the body. These fall under the category of structure/function claims, which are not pre-reviewed or authorized by the FDA at all!
This basically gives free rein to manufacturers to state whatever they want on their product labels, as long as there is no mention of an actual disease. It’s easy to see how this system can be abused. ‘Energized healthy alkaline water’? No problem there. ‘Reducing body fat?’ Go ahead. ‘Better body balance?’ Sure, whatever that means.
Where are the Health Authorities?
Alkaline water scams have been around for several years now, with no signs of slowing down. In fact, new brands are popping up all the time, with each one making more and more absurd claims than previous brands. It’s worrying that the public continues to support the scam, but why are we so ill-informed in the first place? Many sources on the internet warn that alkaline water doesn’t cure disease, but they aren’t being circulated as much as it should be.
Much like the non-GMO movement, we are also bombarded by influencers and social media outlets promoting alkaline water either out of greed or sheer ignorance. The responsibility for regulating such claims should fall upon health authorities; we pay taxes so that they can do their job, which is to ensure the safety and efficacy of the products that we consume.
While we wait for the FDA and relevant regulatory agencies to do their job, we can do our part by keeping the people around us well-informed and by staying away from the stuff. Instead, we can promote the benefits of acidic water, because at least we’d be doing our stomachs a favor (disclaimer: this is a joke).
- Loads, E. B. (2013). Metabolic Alkalosis. National Kidney Foundation Primer on Kidney Diseases E-Book, 137.
- Merne, M. E., Syrjänen, K. J., & Syrjänen, S. M. (2001). Systemic and local effects of long-term exposure to alkaline drinking water in rats. International journal of experimental pathology, 82(4), 213-219.