• “As many pathogens, such as bacteria can be carried by water, contaminated water can cause a range of gut health issues..." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
When it comes to water, ‘natural’ does not always equal healthy.
Yasmin Noone

5 Mar 2018 - 6:56 AM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2020 - 11:10 AM

On the other side of the world, over in America’s Silicon Valley where startup companies flourish, creativity gives birth to innovation and high-tech geniuses breath life into scientific solutions, a new health trend is emerging.

The latest buzz is over is ‘raw water’ and although devotees to the new movement are celebrating its health benefits, many others are worrying about the trend’s potential to cause harm.

Raw water is the natural, ‘healthy’ alternative to treated drinking water, which we’ve been drinking out of taps and filtered water bottles for years. Raw water devotees find alternative water sources out in nature and consume unsterilised, unfiltered, untested and untreated H20 goodness.

Or, you can just buy raw water online. In response to consumer demand, start-up raw water companies are springing up around the USA but mostly in California's Silicon Valley as reported by a recent New York Times investigation. For example, one producer, Live Water, sells around 2.5 gallons (almost 9.5 litres) of raw water for $36.99 US (AU$47.25).

So is organic water that has not been treated or tested safe to buy, source yourself and drink? Herein lies the question which will determine the validity and possibly the future of the new fad.

Fresh from nature but untreated

The assumption upon which raw water movement is based is that tap and bottled water are unhealthy or at least, less healthy than desired. The said health benefits of raw water seem to hail from the understanding that probiotics in naturally sourced water, are killed by the sterilisation process. Marketed as an effective way to provide healthy micro-flora for gut health.

Raw water differs from spring water bottled at the source because anything bottled and sold is typically considered a food product, and subject to certain rules and standards. In most cases, spring water is treated with an ultraviolet light or ozone gas. It’s also filtered to remove algae.

According to Live Water, a raw water producer, their waters have not been “influenced by industrial age contamination”. Raw water is therefore free of all the minerals (like fluoride, which is good for your teeth) currently occupying our tap water stream, added by water treatment companies.

When you drink untreated water, you’re taking a risk that the water you consume is safe.

This is despite Australian water suppliers like Melbourne Water, for example, following strict regulations to ensure that all water supplied meets quality requirements; is actually good for our health; has approved levels of iron and manganese; exact pH levels; and is free of contaminants and bacteria that cause harm to humans.

Even still, authorities do sometimes get it wrong and water health scares do happen in Australia. In 2017, dangerous pathogens were found in unfiltered water sources in NSW towns. It’s for episodes such as this one that has caused some people to lose trust in the purity and quality of regular ‘unraw’ water.

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Dietitians Association of Australia, Charlene Grosse, tells SBS that consumers shouldn’t fall for health claims relating to the phrase ‘natural’.

“Natural does not always equal healthy,” says Grosse, an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian.

“As many pathogens, such as bacteria can be carried by water, contaminated water can cause a range of gut health issues, including gastro and diarrhoea, ranging from both mild to life-threatening cases.

“Natural does not always equal healthy."

“People can be exposed to dangerous microbes if they do not get their water from a safe source. For example, whole communities who are reliant on untreated water from a well can be infected with a parasitic infection called giardia, which can cause chronic diarrhoea. A deadly cholera outbreak in London in the 1850s was connected to a tainted well which led to major changes in sanitation practices and understanding of how water can spread certain diseases.”

Water: It can hydrate but also cause harm

These days, the consumption of untreated H20 is responsible for the transmission of diseases like cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio, and around 502,000 diarrhoeal global deaths a year. Every day, almost 1,000 children around the world die due to preventable water and sanitation-related diarrhoeal diseases.

Having access to clean drinking water is also a universal human right, declared as such by the United Nations (UN). It’s also the thing that governments around the world, non-profits and individuals alike work so hard to guarantee, creating projects and sponsorship programs in third world countries so that wells can be built and forgotten communities can rid themselves of disease by drinking treated water.

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UN statistics specify that 663 million people worldwide don’t have a choice between Evian, tap water or raw water like most of us in the developed world currently do, because they don’t have any access to safe drinking water. And at least 1.8 billion people globally use a source of drinking water that is fecally contaminated.

The fact, Grosse explains, is that when you drink untreated water, you’re taking a risk that the water you consume is safe. It may be okay but “water from untreated sources is variable in quality, and its safety is never guaranteed”.

If raw water devotees must follow this health trend then Grosse advises that they can increase the safety of their self-sourced water by boiling it and then letting the water cool before drinking.

“There are many safe ways through food to achieve this: choosing a diet high in fibre can be a great way to promote positive gut health.”

As for taking steps to improve your gut microbiota, Grosse says its as simple as improving your diet.

“There are many safe ways through food to achieve this: choosing a diet high in fibre can be a great way to promote positive gut health.” That includes eating fruits, vegetables, legumes wholegrains, nuts and seeds.

“There is also evidence emerging around the role of resistant starch, prebiotics and live cultures in food that help to keep our gut microbiota healthy.”

Until further research and tests can be conducted on various sources of raw water, sold for consumer consumption, the jury is out on this one: there’s no hard, wide-ranging international evidence to prove that raw water is safe or dangerous. But if you prefer to err on the side of caution and follow the health expert’s advice when it comes to water, then tap and filtered water is fine to guzzle by the litre. So bottom’s up.

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