My Round: Why drink plain old water when you can drink Glaceau, Propel or Aqua Fina Essentials?

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Indy Lifestyle Online

I knew major social changes were afoot when Margie, my 14-year-old American niece, declined a can of something sugary, fizzy and generally unhealthy. She said she did not want Coke or any other beverages of its ilk. She wanted "vitamin water". "Functional foods" have long been with us: consumables that are intended simultaneously to nourish and deliver some ostensible therapeutic benefit. But vitamin water was a new one to me.

I knew major social changes were afoot when Margie, my 14-year-old American niece, declined a can of something sugary, fizzy and generally unhealthy. She said she did not want Coke or any other beverages of its ilk. She wanted "vitamin water". "Functional foods" have long been with us: consumables that are intended simultaneously to nourish and deliver some ostensible therapeutic benefit. But vitamin water was a new one to me.

Eager to learn more, I hopped in the gas-guzzler and drove to a supermarket near my parents' house in the suburbs of New York. Tellingly, vitamin water, which is simply sweetened water with flavourings, colourings, and small quantities of one or more vitamins, was stacked on the shelves with soft-drinks – colas, iced teas and the like – rather than with water. It is not simply water, you see, but part of a group of products known as "enhanced water".

According to John Sicher, editor and publisher of the Beverage Digest (beverage-digest.com), an industry research organisation, "The water business has seen huge growth in the past four to five years" – 30 per cent a year as opposed to less than 1 per cent for carbonated beverages. "In the past year or two, people have been looking for ways to innovate and create new segments within the larger market." This is a standard feature of all major categories of drink, he points out. "At one time, in carbonated beverages, there was only cola." Now, within water, there is also enhanced water.

The segmentation of the water market is at its very early stages, says Sicher, and the enhanced waters are "a fly speck": 10m or 20m cases out of a bottled-water market that currently sells some 1bn cases in the US alone. But it is a well-populated speck. The market leader is Glaceau, with its range of fruit waters (flavoured waters) as well as vitamin waters. Aqua Fina Essentials is another battler in the bottle wars. Elements and Dasani are in there as well, and so are Clearly Canadian and Propel Fitness.

All nice names, don't you think? Fresh, wholesome, in tune with the modern yen for healthy living. Well, don't let the image lead you off the scent. Glaceau is backed by money that comes, in part, from LVMH. Aqua Fina is a Pepsi product. Elements: Snapple. Dasani: the Coca Cola corporation. Propel: Gatorade. These companies have taken fright because the drinks on which they've grown fat are no longer the enduring flavour of the month. Consumers have realised that fat may be good for multinationals but is not so good when you want to squeeze into a swimsuit. Those carbonated beverages have an unnatural look, while enhanced water and vitamin water... well, they're just water, aren't they? Natural. Healthy. It's a very clever ploy, and the drinks have obviously convinced some consumers to go with the natural flow.

Sicher says it is far too early to tell whether these drinks will make their way in the world: "Check back in a year." In the meantime, I am going by what my tasting panel, and (more importantly) my taste buds tell me. Margie loves the stuff. My nephew Mickey says – with wonderful American monosyllabic eloquence – "That crap is all crap." My impression? After tasting a good few of the enhanced waters, I think I'd rather serve as a guinea pig for an experimental vaccine against the Ebola virus. Enhanced waters don't taste nearly as good as Diet Coke, Fanta or Snapple Lemonade. They tend to have a decent aroma, little flavour of their own and a sharp, nasty, metallic edge to the finish. They're not water. They're not soda pop. I don't get it. Are they headed our way? Beats me. If they do, you'll know that I am, once again, full of crap. *

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