Bottled Water is the Same as Milk

Published on: 12:50PM Jul 01, 2008

Sitting at the breakfast table Monday with the Washington Post, I read with great interest this article about how the bottled water business is trying to gin up more sales by finding new qualities to ascribe to its products – particularly in comparison to tap water, which is free, and in some cases, also the source of the water that ends up in popular bottled water brands.  This quote in particular caught my eye:

But empirical tests have repeatedly shown that they are generally the same. In blind taste tests, many people who swear they can differentiate between bottled-water brands and tap water fail to spot the differences, and studies have shown that both are fine to drink, and both occasionally can have quality problems.

Experts who study bottled water as a cultural phenomenon say differences between the two are largely marketing inventions.

As I poured some milk over my cereal, I though the exact same description could be made in comparing the marketing of organic milk vs. conventional milk – the latter of which, while not free and coming out of our kitchen tap, fetches about half the premium price of certified organic milk.


The reason this story resonated with me is because we’ve seen a great deal of marketing claims about organic dairy products that, in essence, use absence claims that assert the products’ desirabilties based on what they do not have.  The Unholy Trinity, as I call them, are hormones, pesticides and antibiotics. 


While it’s true that the national organic program doesn’t allow dairy farmers to use such products in the production of their milk, at the end of the day, there are no substantial compositional differences in organic vs. conventional milk.  Hormones?  All milk has trace amounts.  Pesticides?  Same there.  If you look hard enough, you’ll find evidence of decades-old use of DDT in most animal foods.  Antibiotics?  Every tanker of milk, organic and regular, is tested for antibiotics, and no milk can be sold if it tests positive.


So what’s interesting in the story about the bottled water biz is that some environmental groups are pressuring local mayors to dissuade people from patronizing bottled water at the expense of water coming from municipal taps.  Water is water, and while the plastic-packaged kind may be more convenient, it comes at a cost.


That’s basically what the overall dairy industry has been saying, with much less impact, in the past decade.  For people who don’t want milk produced using modern technologies that improve on-farm efficiencies, organic products are an alternative.  But the resulting product is nutritionally and compositionally no different, and certainly not safer,compared  to its conventional brethren.


Here’s another excerpt from the Post story toward that end:

The supply of clean drinking water across America and in many other countries is an underappreciated scientific and technological achievement that in many ways rivals putting a man on the moon. Trillions of dollars have been spent to get clean drinking water to people at virtually no cost.


You know, that’s also an accurate description of our system of modern milk production, where rigorous hygiene and sanitation requirements have made it a reliably safe, very nutritious, and relatively inexpensive product (usually cheaper, gallon for gallon, than bottled water itself, which has no nutrition at all!).


Alas, despite no evidence to the contrary, some people just don’t buy the facts.  Witness what a newsletter editor named Lisa Freeman reported on CNN last month: 

“Shoppers should splurge instead on USDA-certified organic meat, poultry and dairy products - free of antibiotics and toxins found in the conventional variety.”


I have no idea where she got the notion that there are toxins, or antibiotics, in the dairy supply, but this is an urban legend (or is it rural, if we’re talking  about farming?) that seems to perpetuate itself with no scientific proof at all.  Sounds a lot like the raw milk movement, come to think of it.


But perhaps this sober scrutiny of the rhetoric and reality of bottled water will eventually spill into the milk business as well.  I’ll drink to that.