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‘Alkaline water’: contemporary snake oil

Intrepid BS detective, Ivo Vegter, is at it again, taking on the purveyors of ‘alkaline water’ in South Africa…

Modern snake-oil sellers have a sciency-sounding shtick about them, but ‘alkaline’ or ‘ionised’ water is a swindle.

Adverts for a fancy water brand called Designer Water are all over Facebook. My local gym sells it. The ads circulate on WhatsApp groups. There is a multi-level marketing scheme for it, à la Herbalife, Avon, Amway, and Tupperware.

Its differentiator is that it is ‘ionised’ to be ‘alkaline’, with a claimed pH of 10. For this, you can expect to pay two to three times as much as you’d pay for regular filtered water in a bottle.

‘You’re not sick. You’re thirsty,’ reads the vinyl sticker on the car door of one ‘waterpreneur’, suggesting that water cures all ills.

The adverts – like all alternative health quackery – claim the same. Designer Water is, they claim, good for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, premature aging, cancer, morning sickness, depression, osteoporosis, heartburn, headaches, hangovers, weight loss, constipation, digestion, gout, pain, dementia, mental fog, loss of libido, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, ‘eye disease’, poor eyesight, lupus, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and more.

“When alkaline ionized water was used with Alzheimer’s patients, just by drinking a gallon a day, their senility problems subsided,” said one error-ridden advert, quoting a Dr Mona Harrison, reportedly a former director of the International Water Council.

Bogus claims

The International Water Council (as distinct from the World Water Council and the International Water Association, neither of which advocate alkaline water) does not appear to exist. If it does exist, it has never been mentioned on the internet, which means it might as well not exist.

A gallon, in the US, is 3.8 litres. That is nearly twice the usual ‘eight glasses a day’ recommendation for what the average healthy person should drink (and even that is a disputed oversimplification).

A gallon a day might be appropriate for very active individuals, provided they keep their electrolytes topped up, too, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Dr Harrison’s senile patients were not sportspeople.

The late Dr Harrison made claims such as, ‘Urine that has a strong odour indicates an unhealthy body. If the body is balanced there is no ammonia and protein in the urine. An over acid body causes kidney stones and gall stones.’

All of that is false. These are all symptoms of dehydration. She falsely attributes the properties of ordinary water to alkaline water.

‘Ionized water is great for Attention Deficit Disorder as this condition is [caused by] too much rhodium and iridium in the brain,’ said Dr Harrison. ‘Ionized water calms these types of children.’

If it is true that rhodium and iridium cause ADD, Dr Harrison is the only person on Earth ever to have said so, and she only said so once, producing no evidence for her claim.

‘Alkaline ionized water electrolysis converts the inorganic minerals present in the water to organic minerals, just like plant juice.’

Here we enter magic territory, and in particular, the magic of transubstantiation. By definition, organic compounds contain carbon.

Ionising water does not magically create carbon, and therefore cannot turn inorganic minerals into organic minerals.

If it could, though, we’d be sitting on a potential gusher, because the biggest class of organic minerals is hydrocarbons, a.k.a. fossil fuels. I’m not convinced you’d want them in your water, though.


Dr Harrison said: ‘Cancer tumors cannot live in alkaline water.’

This is true, but this is also true for every other cell in the human body. That bit about there being no ammonium in healthy urine? That’s nonsense.

Excreting ammonium is a key part of how the kidneys help to regulate the body’s acid-base homeostasis (pH balance) to ensure that the pH of the intra- and extra-cellular fluids, as well as the pH of the blood, remains in a very narrow, tightly regulated, band.

For arterial blood, the pH range is between 7.36 and 7.44, and intracellular pH is about 7.2. This cannot be changed by ingesting acids or bases. Alkaline water cannot affect this, because homeostatic control processes would immediately go to work to restore the body’s pH balance to what it’s supposed to be, within seconds.

The only possible outcome is that the acidity of your urine changes, as your kidneys maintain the acid-base homeostasis.

The only possible health benefit alkaline water might have on the way to the hydrochloric acid of your stomach (pH 2) is to relieve heartburn, which occurs when stomach acid gets into the oesophagus.

There are, however, better treatments for gastro-oesophagal reflux disease than alkaline antacids, although reducing the acidity of the gastric juices by any means can have unintended consequences.

Water chemistry

In theory, water is water. Unless you put chemicals in your water, its pH will be neutral. There is only one way to produce supposedly acidic or alkaline water without adding ingredients, and that is by electrolysis.

Electrolysis entails passing an electric current through water, which breaks up some of the H2O into two charged ions, namely hydrogen (H+) and hydroxide (OH). The hydrogen is attracted to the negative electrode (anode) and the hydroxide is attracted to the positive electrode (cathode), so if you abstract water from near the cathode, you’ll end up with water that is slightly alkaline.

Producing water with an alkalinity of 10 would be a slow process that consumes lots of expensive electricity. It would also be quite unstable and reactive.

I would be astonished if even factory-produced Designer Water actually has an alkalinity anywhere near 10. If I were in the water marketing business, I wouldn’t waste good money on the electricity needed to produce that.

It doesn’t matter, though, because the Designer Water crew debunks its own claims quite neatly when it refers to ‘alkaline, hydrogen rich water’ (being rich in hydrogen ions would make water acidic, not alkaline).

And although it sells electrical water ionisers costing tens of thousands of rands (and still probably cannot alkalise a stream of running tap water), it also flogs a poor-man’s version in the form of a water filter jug that supposedly produces alkaline water even though it is not an electrical appliance.

It sells this jug for R695, which is twice as much as a functionally identical water filter jug costs elsewhere….. Read the full article here