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The Purest of Them All

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When most Americans talk about good-tasting water, they’re talking about water that tastes like their own spit.

“When you taste something, you’re comparing the taste of that water to the saliva in your mouth,” says Gary Burlingame, who supervises water quality for the Philadelphia Water Department. “The saliva in your mouth is salty.”

Salty saliva bathes your tongue, drenching every one of your thousands of taste buds. It protects you from nasty bacteria, moistens your food, helps you pronounce the word “stalactite” and even lets you know when you might be drinking something bad for you. Like water.

Pure water, that is.

Stripping water down to an ultrapure state makes it unfit for human consumption.

In the world of electronics, manufacturers remove all of the minerals, dissolved gas and dirt particles from water. The result is called ultrapure water, and they use it to clean tiny, sensitive equipment like semiconductors, which are found in computer microchips.

Water molecules have a slight negative charge, which means they’re good at dissolving or pulling other molecules apart. When water is in an ultrapure state, it’s a “super cleaner,” sucking out the tiniest specks of dirt and leaving your computer’s brain squeaky clean.

But if you were to drink ultra-pure water, it would literally drink you back. The moment it came through your lips, it would start leaching valuable minerals from your saliva.

“Your mouth wants potassium, magnesium and other minerals,” says Arthur von Wiesenberger, a professional water taster who’s been running water-tasting competitions for more than 20 years. “It can tell when it’s being stripped.”

Fortunately, pure water is rarely found in nature. Water is constantly moving and passing through rock and soil, picking up minerals and chemicals your body needs as it goes.

It’s Not Taste; It’s Flavor

Your tongue can taste sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness and umami, or meaty. That’s it.

Your tongue can feel hot and cold—that’s temperature. Your tongue can also feel spiciness, which is actually your nerve endings responding to pain.

But you can’t have a full appreciation for flavor unless you account for one other sense.

You think that’s chlorine you taste in your tap water? It’s actually chlorine you smell.

“When you drink and taste, you’re smelling at the same time,” Burlingame says.

When water passes through your mouth, it activates the taste buds on your tongue, but some of it turns into a gas and floats up the back of your throat to your nose.

The biggest complaints Americans have about their tap water are from smell: a chlorine smell from the treatment plant, a sulfurous odor from iron, a metallic smell from rust or an earthy odor from algae.

“Drinking water isn’t supposed to have a smell,” Burlingame says. “It may have a taste, but it shouldn’t have any feeling factors. It shouldn’t be crispy, and it certainly shouldn’t have a burning sensation.”

Water should taste and feel like…nothing.

You want water that’s pure…well not pure, pure, but you know what we mean.

Kelly Izlar About the Author: Kelly Izlar is the editor-in-chief for Powering a Nation, a student-led project based out of UNC Chapel Hill reporting on environmental and energy issues. This summer, the project focuses on the human relationship with water —how we love it, how we ignore it and the intimate role it plays from the moment we're born to the moment we die. "100 Gallons" launches on Wednesday, August 1, 2012. Check out Follow it on Twitter at @poweringanation. Follow on Twitter @kellyizlar.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 8 Comments

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  1. 1. promytius 3:04 pm 08/1/2012

    Very nicely done, and a great explanation of how we hardly ever use just one sense at a time.

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  2. 2. Mythusmage 8:03 pm 08/1/2012

    I prefer San Diego tap water, which has calories (that’s with a small “c” :) ).

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  3. 3. hanmeng 10:02 pm 08/1/2012

    Superb opening line.

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  4. 4. David Marjanović 8:05 am 08/2/2012

    Water molecules have a slight negative charge

    On one side (the oxygen atom). On the other side (the hydrogen atoms), they have a slight positive charge.

    That’s why both positive and negative ions are soluble in water. Of course, it’s also why water exists at all outside of strong electromagnetic fields or a vacuum.

    Stripping water down to an ultrapure state makes it unfit for human consumption.

    You’d need to drink an awful lot of it to notice any effects, though.

    Tap water is practically pure. It is nothing like blood or lymph or saliva – those are halfway to seawater. It was tap water that killed someone at “hold your wee for a Wii”; a negligibly, perhaps unmeasurably, smaller amount of ultrapure water would have had the same effect.

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  5. 5. R.Blakely 5:58 am 08/3/2012

    After drinking ultra pure water we become addicted to its wonderful taste. To an ultra pure water addict, other water tastes terrible. The terrible taste is due to poisonous magnesium minerals present in most tap waters.
    Water can be ultra-ultra pure. For example, distillation twice can make it much cleaner. Reverse osmosis done twice can make water ultra-ultra pure also.
    City water treatment does not remove poisonous magnesium minerals from water. To drink clean water you need to use a Polar Bear distiller or a good RO system to clean water.
    The human body has its own membranes similar to RO membranes used to clean water. This means that minerals are not leached from the body by drinking ultra pure water. In fact the reverse is true. Salt in the human body attracts ultra pure water, and this is how we absorb water that we drink.

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  6. 6. Quinn the Eskimo 1:46 am 08/5/2012

    Why do I bother to read these comments?

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  7. 7. David Marjanović 1:10 pm 08/9/2012

    The terrible taste is due to poisonous magnesium minerals present in most tap waters.

    What? Poisonous magnesium minerals? What would those be???

    The terrible taste of so much American tap water is due to too many people not caring. Compared to other countries, tap water in many states of the US is allowed to contain ridiculously large amounts of all kinds of crap (even arsenic). The biggest culprit, as everywhere, are probably lead pipes, though.

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  8. 8. purewater4 6:34 am 03/21/2013

    The amount of water in the human body decreases from birth to older age. The most decrease occurs within the first ten years of life. The percentages mentioned above are only ranges. There is no statistical number, exactly, the same for all people. It, also, depends on the condition of the person. For example, obesity can decrease the amount of water in the body, to as low as 45%.

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