Over the years, the world has seen more than an abundance in crazy health fads. Things like oxygen bars, the tapeworm diet, vibrating belts, pills made from placenta and a diet that meant only eating purple things are just a small view of some of the insane things people have embraced over the years as “healthy.” Of course, as progress is inevitable, so too is the expansion of even more health crazes and fads that will have the public arguing over not only the legitimacy of it, but the safety as well.
While some swear by “juicing,” for example, which is essentially a raw diet of materials like vegetables and fruits blended into a juice, others have claimed that it is dangerous. Still, a large majority of people want to go with things that are as natural and unprocessed as possible in order to reap the health benefits from it. Raw vegetables, raw fruits, etc. But what about raw “water?”
I know what you're thinking. Surely, there is no such thing as “raw water,” right? Water is just water. Sure, you can add tea leaves or flavors to it and change it a bit, but it is still water, right? Well, some people would disagree with you. Raw water is somewhat of a new craze that is sweeping the nation, and it already has proponents on both sides of the argument for why it is either the healthiest option for drinking water or a major health risk that could cause extreme health problems to a lot of unaware people.
But what exactly is raw water?
Raw Water: Healthy or Hazardous?
Raw water is defined as, literally, untreated, “raw” water. This can mean water straight from lakes, rivers and nature in general that has gone through no kind of filtration or processing. Raw water is basically like cupping your hands and drinking straight from the local river, except, in this case, you would be paying upwards of $60 USD for it. Yes, some company is apparently selling glass jugs of raw water for a little over $60 and, if sales records are anything to go by, it has proven to be something of a hot seller.
The company is called Live Water, and they stress that their fancy glass jugs come sourced from a local Oregon spring and use no filtration or industrialized processing methods to procure said water. According to their website, raw water is a "new, yet ancient idea," that, unlike filtered or bottled spring waters, is not subjected to UV light, ozone gas and other sterilization techniques that "destroy beneficial sources of minerals and probiotics" which help prevent "anxiety, weight gain, fatigue and countless other ailments [that] are linked to an imbalance of proper gut bacteria." In essence, Live Water wants you to believe that filtered water, whether it comes bottled or from your own home, is bereft of health detriments that are peeling humans away from their natural way of life. To some, it might sound like an interesting, and even promising, theory.
No one wants water that is going to cause them harm, right? You can look at the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan as one example and see that some people might be concerned about how the water industry is handling the water we consume daily. There are environmental concerns from plastic bottles filling landfills or containing harmful traces of chemicals that no one wants in their drink. Water filters at home have become a more affordable and common option as well, but some fear that the filters are leaking in even more harmful chemicals or are ultimately costing us health benefits. Live Water compares all of this to the process that some foods go through so they can “sit on your shelf for months.”
Is there any merit to what Live Water wants you to believe?
Raw Water in the Rough
How unsafe? According to the World Health Organization, 3.4 billion people die every year as a result of water-related diseases. This means that the bacteria, viruses and parasites in untreated water kill more than war, terrorism and other diseases. To put that in perspective, the Black Death killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe alone, and that was after hundreds of years. An assessment commissioned by the United Nations showed that some 4,000 children die daily because of diseases associated with the ingestion of filthy, untreated water.
Untreated water can contain the bacteria for diseases like cholera, typhoid fever and hepatitis A, for example, and are some of the most common diarrheal diseases that can easily cause death if left untreated–especially for smaller children under the age of five. This doesn't even cover waterborne diseases like SARS, Polio, Vibrio illness and many more.
Raw water in areas where treatment or processing is not an option is a serious problem for people whose only choice of survival is between drinking dirty water or dying of thirst. Said water can often be mixed with the pathogens of fecal matter that also contain parasites, which present another large portion of dangerous waterborne diseases that people can be exposed to. Many of these parasites or microbes can lead to symptoms like diarrhea, fever, bloating, weight loss, cramps and muscle aches. Some of the more serious infections can lead to death via liver or respiratory failure, if left untreated.
With those high statistics, it sounds like any “health” benefits one might get from raw water are vastly outweighed by the chance of catching any of these nasty diseases, especially if violent diarrhea is among the milder of the symptoms you can experience.
The argument from Live Water is stated on their website as:
“For cheaper transport and shelf stability all other bottled, filtered, tap, and even spring waters are sterilized with ozone gas, irradiated with UV light, and passed through a sub-micron filter. It's similar to juice that's pasteurized so it can sit on shelves for months. Fresh squeezed juice is clearly better, but what about fresh squeezed spring water? Our water is kept cold and transported within days of collection.
“Similar to the use of antibiotics, water sterilization disrupts healthy bacterias. Developing and sustaining a healthy gut biome is a key factor in unlocking optimal health. We have an average 5 pounds of good or bad bacteria in our gut flora. Fermented food are great sources for healthy bacteria, but drinking beneficial microbes in water might be our bodies’ most critical source of healthy bacteria. Gowith your gut.”
Okay, sure. In the guts of a human are, indeed, thousands of different kinds of bacteria that regulate and work with our body. The kinds you might see are based on factors such as diet, health, age and so on. If one wanted to improve on the health of their gut bacteria, a doctor might recommend probiotics or even recommend eating more fermented food, as Live Water mentions above.
However, the bacteria that is common in raw water does not often mesh well with the standard gut microbiota that you would see in the human gut. In fact, in the case of Salmonella, humans infected with the disease can carry said bacteria in their gut for months or even years without even being aware that they have the disease and are risking spreading it to others. On the other hand, E.coli is actually an essential part of the bacterial flora that resides in the guts of humans and animals. Checkmate, you might cry! Not so, we fear. The strain of E. coli that we harbor is nonpathogenic and does not spread or cause us harm. The strains of E. coli that cause waterborne diseases are an entirely different beast and have no intention of playing nice with the strain that we harbor.
The question to ask here is: If raw water in countries like Africa and Asia is killing some 4,000 children a day, why would anyone want to drink it?
Oh, but this water is from a fresh, natural spring from a beautiful glade in Oregon! Surely that isn't the same as the nasty water that they have to deal with, right?
Maybe so. A beautiful spring is definitely an appealing thought, certainly better than a standard water cooler in the office. But, one has to ask themselves: Even if they can stop human interaction with said spring, can they stop animal interaction from occurring? Or even the natural interaction that comes with the way bacteria, microbes and parasites spread?
The truth is: No, they cannot. That is what the filtration and treatment process is meant to do. If you are scooping water directly from a raw water source, be it a spring, a river, a lake or a particularly nice puddle, the risk remains the same. You can “go with your gut” all you want, but that bacteria is going to be in your fancy glass jug in the meantime.
Why Should I Care?
If you're just reading this without any intention of buying into the Live Water mantra, then maybe you shouldn't. But there's always the chance that you'll have a family member or friend who will buy into what they are selling and start swearing on their life that they've never felt healthier. At least until they end up in the hospital or, bare minimum, on their toilet for a few days.
With any health craze or fad, it’s important that we stay educated. Something might sound so simple and easy that we'll want to buy into it just to feel healthier. Some of us would try anything to lose weight or to avoid processed foods or just to stick to our morals of living as close to nature as we possibly can. But, we also have to remember that there is a reason that water goes through a treatment procedure. There are people out there who don't have that option and are suffering or dying every single day. The United Nations made access to clean water a basic human right that millions of people still don't have and, for those of us who do have the option, that spending sixty odd dollars on a pretty glass jug of raw water is not only potentially detrimental to our health but stands against the very notion of that mandate. It can come from a lovely spring, it can be “good for the gut,” it can come in a pretty glass jar made by artisans from wherever–it is still, at its core, a placebo. Not even a good placebo. A good placebo is meant to make you feel better, not have you running for the bathroom.
And some people are going to love it, no matter what science or doctors or basic facts say. If the sales are anything to go from, then lots of people have already bought into it. It's a recent fad, so no one can say for certain how the figures are going to look in a few months or even years. We won't know how many people will have been sent to the hospital or if Live Water will have had any lawsuits filed against it. There's even a small chance that nothing will come of it and it will just stay a weird health craze that will ultimately be replaced by whatever comes next.
But there's also the chance that things could turn for the worst. What can be a crazy health fad could cost people their lives, as grim as that sounds. No one wants to believe that the worst can come from something that is meant to be healthy and natural but, again, we are a species who once believed ingesting a tapeworm to lose weight was a good idea. Ultimately, it is up to us to stay educated and to know what we are putting into our bodies to the fullest extent so that we do not become another statistic.