“I’ve heard that alkaline water has lots of health benefits, but a water ionizer is so expensive! Is it worth it?”
There are countries that have clean, safe tap water and those that do not. You would never know that the United States falls into the former category: Americans spent $21 billion on bottled waters in 2012, and more and more consumers are investing in a home water filter.
A filter can range from an inexpensive carafe or pitcher to a system designed for the whole house, but the latest machine to make waves is the water ionizer, which passes an electrical current through tap water in order to turn it alkaline (i.e., base) through the chemical reaction called electrolysis. Proponents claim alkaline water helps the body neutralize acid in the blood, provides more energy, slows the aging process, and is, according to the online purveyor Alkaline Water Plus, “packed with natural antioxidants [negatively-charged electrons], which are free to naturally fight free radicals .... Drinking alkaline antioxidant water all day long will help you prevent and even reverse free radical damage.”
“Change your water, change your life,” is the trademarked slogan of Kangen Water, marketed by the U.S. branch of the Japanese company Enagic. “Keeping ourselves Alkaline is the first line of defense in fighting any disease,” Cal Water Systems states on another website. “Ionized Water essentially renews us at a cellular level. This is as close as we can ever hope to get to a Fountain of Youth, as incredible as that may sound.”
That does sound incredible. And expensive! Don’t know about you, but it made me really curious about how water ionizers work.
But first, a little background on the pH scale, which is used to define degrees of alkalinity and acidity. In 1909, S.P.L. Sørensen, director of chemistry at Carlsberg Laboratory, in Copenhagen (founded in 1875 by beer magnate J.C. Jacobsen), invented the pH scale while researching proteins, amino acids, and enzymes—the basis of protein chemistry today.
“Sørensen used a negative logarithm of the hydrogen concentration to create a scale from 0-14, where a pH of less than 7 is an acid, 7 is neutral, and higher than 7 is an alkali,” reads an 2009 announcement from Carlsberg, on the 100th anniversary of the breakthrough. “So water has a pH of 7, lemon juice 2.4, and bleach 12.5. The pH of beer is between 4.1. and 4.6 .... Before the pH scale, the only parameter to measure acid levels were vague terms such as ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ or ‘slightly more than last time.’ ”
The innumerable useful applications of the pH (short for “potential of Hydrogen”) scale range from foods and beverages to cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and medical diagnostics. Just about every liquid has had its pH measured at some time—including those in our bodies—which, it is very important to note, have more than one pH level.
Take the stomach, for instance. It has a pH ranging from 1.35 to 3.5, due to production of hydrocloric acid, which aids in digestion. Blood, on the other hand, must always be slightly alkaline, with a pH of 7.35 to 7.45. The body’s buffering systems keep it within that precise range, and excess acid is excreted by the lungs and kidneys. That’s part of their job, and they are very, very good at it. The body maintains its pH balance over widely differing diets, and even though what you eat can affect the pH level of your urine, it cannot affect the pH level of your blood.
Still with me? Good. Now back to water ionizers. These electrical devices—which generally cost from $1,000 to almost $6,000 and are often sold by multi-level marketing companies—attach to the kitchen faucet or go under the sink. They strip out contaminants, like other filters, and, besides producing alkaline water for drinking, they also produce acidic water, for cleaning. If you’ve ever washed windows with a water-and-vinegar mixture, you know acidic water is a good cleansing agent. But the notion that alkaline water can fight or prevent disease? Any chemist will tell you that there is still much to learn about water, but hmmm.
Many of the online claims are based on the theory that ionized alkaline water has smaller “clusters” of molecules. According to the Kangen Water website, for instance, “These small clusters make alkaline water Kangen Water more soluble and permeable, allowing you to absorb the important vitamins and nutrients your body needs.” And The Alkalizer (“A Wetter Water for a Better Body”) maintains that, “The smaller mineral clusters, as measured by the use of a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance device is a more hydrating water than normal tap water. Through electrolysis large tap mineral clusters are reduced from their original size. The smaller cluster size gives the water excellent hydrating properties, high solubility and good permeability.”
Small clusters? Is this stuff for real? Well, yes and no, I discovered, after reaching out to Kenneth Jordan, distinguished professor of computational chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. Well known for his work on water clusters—groups of water molecules linked together—he collaborated on a number of studies on water structure that Science magazine listed as among the top ten scientific breakthroughs of 2004.
“There are dozens of companies that claim to convert water into clustered water or to otherwise rearrange water and sell products based on this. Essentially, all of these claims are bogus,” he wrote in an email. “Take clustered water as an example. One can make this in a laboratory at very low temperatures and very low pressures (i.e., in a vacuum). This keeps the clusters from touching one another. If they touch, they coalesce into bulk water, which is more stable.”
Bogus. Alternative-health guru Andrew Weil used that word as well in response to a question about Kangen Water in 2010. “It is the latest variation of so-called alkaline water, which promoters claim is essential for elimination of the acidity in our bodies—attributed to all the evils of the modern world .... The human body needs absolutely no help in adjusting its pH.” He added, “Unless you have serious respiratory or kidney problems, body pH will remain in balance no matter what you eat or drink .... Bottom line: The health claims for water ionizers and for alkaline water are bogus.”
It’s tempting to close with just one word—“ditto.” But in fairness, alkaline water, like any clean water, is a far better choice for hydrating than soda or an additive-filled sports drink. If you choose to see an expensive machine as a gateway to a healthier lifestyle or to give you an edge when competing in sports, then jump right in. It’s part and parcel of an alkaline diet, after all, a mostly-vegetarian regimen that I haven’t really addressed here. (Why not? Scroll back up and take another look at the question.) But if you think alkaline water will allow you to avoid illnesses that fall into the “Sometimes Stuff Happens” category or live forever, then you are bound to be disappointed.