Review: Alkaline Water Is a Racket
By Tanner Garrity / June 3, 2019 4:46 pm

Last month, we rang Corey Calliet, the man behind Michael B. Jordan’s transformation for Black Panther and Creed 2, for his thoughts on how the average man can elevate his fitness. Among his helpful advice (jumping rope is a great, go-to cardio exercise) and fun trainer-y quotes (“It didn’t take 30 days to gain that weight, it won’t take 30 to lose it”), Calliet dropped a positively ringing endorsement of Essentia Water, an emerging brand that makes ionized alkaline water.

His exact words: “I like alkaline water because it helps to balance the pH in your body. I drink two gallons every day.”

First off, two gallons?! In water bottle terms (imagine your standard 16.9 ounce bottle) that’s a shade over 15. Which is objectively crazy. Calliet’s currently attempting a comeback in the bodybuilding world, though, and is also eating six meals a day, so I suppose it makes sense.

I’m actually more interested in the first half of that claim. The matter-of-fact declaration that A) alkaline water “balances” pH, and B) that this is a known and healthy thing. Calliet’s brand of choice here, Essentia, is the de facto ringleader of the ionized water movement, and if you’ve been to a coffee shop, fitness center or shared workspace lately, you’ve almost certainly seen the slick red/black bottle with its Swiss flag-esque logo.

After weeks of seeing it everywhere (even my barber, it appeared, was fueling up throughout the day with Essentia) I started considering a few questions. How does acidity fundamentally relate to hydration? Could Essentia really be healthier than normal water? Does it taste different? Or is this all just an elaborate marketing campaign?

Seeking answers, I went to Duane Reade and got myself a 33.8 oz bottle. There are a few key properties listed on the outside. It touts:

  • Ionized hydration
  • 9.5 pH or higher
  • And electrolytes for taste

Essentia says it “supercharges” its water through a three-step process. Unwanted particles are removed through micro-filtration, trace amounts of electrolytes are added, and acidic ions are removed, raising the water’s pH number up to 9.5. Purification, electrolysis, ionization, repeat. This process is successful, in that Essentia’s water maintains a pH between eight and 10. But its superiority to a glass of tap water is dubious.

The claims suggest that introducing a higher pH water into the bloodstream (as normal water hovers around a neutral pH of 7) could detox and enliven the body, while potentially helping treat common headaches or prevent cancer. But the science doesn’t back it up. As Tantis Fenton, a registered dietitian at the University of Calgary pointed out to The New York Times, “If you drink water that is slightly alkaline, the hydrochloric acid in the stomach quickly neutralizes it before it’s absorbed into the blood.” That’s because our stomachs, joyful washing machines of secretions that they are, maintain a pH between 1.5 and 3.5.

If the alkaline water can’t make it past the stomach, it won’t do much to lower the acidity of the bloodstream, which clocks in at 7.4. And it certainly won’t then prevent heart disease, or lower the loss of bone density, as certain corners of the internet have suggested. Unsurprisingly, the one study with a positive review of alkaline water was funded by Essentia Water. And its conclusion wasn’t’ too revelatory; it suggested alkaline water could improve the hydration of athletes.

Which, of course it can! I slugged my bottle down over a couple hours at work and felt great. Sidebar: It didn’t taste any different to me than regular water. Maybe a tad bubblier than usual, but I’d need a water sommelier to weigh in. (Yes, that exists now.) Between the packaging, the fact that the reigning NFL MVP drinks it, and the large, gym ratty size of a standard bottle, the whole experience of Essentia feels athletic. We all know how important it is to chug water all day long. Essentia is removing the boringness of that assignment. Why wouldn’t pros and amateurs alike want to upgrade their water a bit? Especially if it might have all sorts of other life-changing properties?

The genius here is that Essentia will never directly acknowledge a laboratory debate, for instance, on whether alkaline water can prevent cancer. It can’t, by the way, and Essentia doesn’t have to. Instead, the brand deploys a simple explanation: This water balances the pH in your body. That’s a good thing.

It all goes back to Calliet’s original quote. The health benefits in alkaline water aren’t shouted, they’re implied, and thus entirely up to you. It’s the same snake oil game American society’s seen since the late 19th century medicine shows. Only this time, the style is less huckster, more Matthew McConaughey. The success in that strategy (as of a year ago, Essentia owned about 56% market share of alkaline water in the country), has not been lost on some of the big boys in the water industry. Check out this zero-frills ad, snapped on my commute last week:

Smartwater is owned by the ultimate big-boy in beverages, Coca-Cola, and the company officially launched its alkaline water last October. It’s somehow fitting, really, that the OG “better water” trendsetter is now racing to keep up with the young guns.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mad. Not at Essentia or Smartwater or Life Wtr or Core or the half-dozen others that’ll crop up by the end of the year. This also isn’t even the most worked up an InsideHook employee has gotten over bottled water in the last week. But, we’ve gotta call this one straight. Until proven otherwise by a legitimate scientific study, alkaline water is no more supercharged than “Michael’s Secret Stuff.”