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Meet water's cooler cousins

Fruit flavored H2O? Not enough anymore. These days 'enhanced' can mean herbs, even fiber. Whether the drinks do much is debatable.

January 16, 2006|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

"It's snake oil," said Stephen Lower, a retired chemistry professor from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, who runs a website on "water-related pseudoscience, fantasy and quackery" (www.chem1.com/CQ/). "There is no evidence that you can change the structure of water," he said in a phone interview.

On his site, which features a Bunk House Gallery evaluating dozens of water products and their health claims, Lower writes: "The hucksters who promote these largely worthless products weave a web of pseudoscientific hype guaranteed to dazzle and confuse the large segment of the public whose limited understanding of science makes them especially vulnerable to this kind of exploitation."

Other health claims are harder to prove and disprove. Borba is one of the newest entries into the enhanced water market. Calling itself a "nutraceutical," defined as a foodstuff (as a fortified food or dietary supplement) that provides health benefits, Borba waters take health claims to a new level. Just a year old, the pastel-colored waters (at $2.50 a bottle) are not even available in supermarkets. Instead they are sold in high-end skin care boutiques such as Fred Segal Beauty, or at skin care counters in upscale department stores such as Nordstrom and Bergdorf Goodman.

Scott Vincent Borba, the 32-year-old Woodland Hills-based entrepreneur who created Borba waters, commissioned his own research on their effects on the skin. He uses the results on the labels and on his website. "Scientifically proven to improve moisture levels by an average of 66%," says the blurb for Borba Skin Balance Water (Replenishing).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not recognize or regulate nutraceuticals as a category and doesn't require premarket testing for either cosmetics or dietary supplements. As for other types of enhanced water, as long as companies adhere to bottled water standards and follow the law in terms of labeling, they can add ingredients, colors and calories and still call it water, said an FDA official.

None of that seems to matter to many consumers. Ed Winston, who runs the Culver City branch of Mrs. Winston's Green Grocery, a sandwich and salad bar with natural snacks and fresh food, said he sells a lot of beverages, and enhanced water is in the top 5%. "A lot of people don't eat well, and they know it," Winston said. "They figure if they get vitamins in a bottle, they are doing better. They are trying."

Besides, they taste good to a 21st century person on the run.

"I am totally addicted," said Dalia Lachs, 21, as she tossed two bottles of hot pink vitaminwater (Focus) into her cart at Whole Foods. "I drink one a day instead of supplements. I forget to take vitamins. But if I have a bottle of water, I'll drink it."

Whatever the case, enhanced waters certainly look cool. Here in Los Angeles, where models and movie stars tote water bottles around like fashion accessories, maybe it's more about cachet anyway.

"There are status waters," observed Bowerman, the nutritionist. "People don't want to walk around with a supermarket-brand water bottle." Michael Mascha, publisher of the website Finewaters, which aims to place water into an epicurean context, put it this way in a phone interview: \o7 \f7"I'm not sure if this is the best delivery mechanism [for vitamins] or the best cost-benefit, but enhanced waters look so nice, you almost cannot resist buying them."

That fact is not lost on the manufacturers. Borba comes in a bottle frosted like a high-end skin care product, with a handsome leather-textured label.

"Literally, we try to mimic the look and feel of a Louis Vuitton purse with our label," said Borba. "The idea was, if I am going to be walking around with skin care, I want it to be cool."

Glaceau Vitaminwater, meanwhile, comes in pretty colors with clever, irreverent labels. Like the label on "power-c dragonfruit (c + taurine)": "legally we are prohibited from making exaggerated claims about the potency of the nutrients in this bottle. therefore, we wouldn't tell you that ... this drink gave agnes from delaware enough strength to bench press llamas ... legally, we can't say stuff like that, cause that would be wrong, you know?"

The abundance of the new offerings could leave some consumers longing for a choice like "Neau," a clear plastic bottle with a simple logo -- and no water. It can be filled with tap water and used over and over. The product is sold in the Netherlands by a Dutch foundation.

Proceeds go to drinking water projects in countries such as Sudan, Vietnam and Peru.

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