By Joe Pomento
Take a sip of water; roll it over the tongue. Taste buds immediately
begin firing off information to the brain about the liquid's flavor. Is
it salty? Earthy? Soft?
Listen in during a water-tasting contest and you might think that you
are privy to a sampling from some of California's best wine cellars. Clean.
Silky. Brilliant. Not all drinking waters warrant these superlatives.
For instance, if you had attended a recent water tasting in a southeastern
city, you would have heard comments such as crude, with an edge
or like a taking a gulp from a swimming pool
while another judge
remarked that a sample tasted like a guppy had swum in it.
There's more to the taste of tap water than meets the eye. And in this
case, it's the nose and tongue that have the starring roles.
As a noun, taste is the sense that identifies particular flavors by means
of the tongue. Webster's defines taste as "the special sense that
perceives and distinguishes the sweet, bitter, sour or salty quality of
a dissolved substance and is mediated by the taste buds on the tongue."
As a verb, it means to discern the flavor of something.
Although all water begins as two hydrogen molecules and one of oxygen,
that's where the similarities end. All tap water may be created equally,
but that resemblance quickly evaporates the farther you get from the source.
The reason is simple.
Water is called the universal solvent. It dissolves a little of anything
that comes in contact with it. Wherever water goes, it gathers minerals
and, therefore tastes along the way. The closer to the source, the better
the water may taste.
"Water is as unique as fingerprints," said Arthur von Wiesenberger,
a Santa Barbara author of several water books and a trained water master.
"No two are identical. Water reflects the geologic strata it flows
through as it absorbs a bit of the natural minerals and trace elements."
Although most people talk about the "taste" of tap water, that's
not completely accurate, said Sylvia Barrett, team manager at the Metropolitan
Water District's Water Quality Lab. What they are actually referring to
is flavor, she explained.
In the March 25, 2000, issue of Science News, Nicholas Ryba of the National
Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, states, "Taste is something
more that just a test-tube reaction. It's a sensation."
Flavor is comprised of a mixture of sensory information - taste, smell
and the tactile sensation that food scientists call mouthfeel. What the
average person considers taste, Barrett said, is more accurately described
as a combination of flavor and aroma.
That's why when you have a cold nothing seems to "taste" quite
Based on this confusion between taste and flavor, it's easy to understand
why scientists say that taste is the most elusive of the five senses.
Mouthfeel, added von Wiesenberger, who has swirled, sniffed and sipped
thousands of water samples, is really the way you roll water over the
tongue to pick up the various flavors on the palate. If the water is light,
it will feel light. If there is weight to it, then there will be a sensation
on the palate that water without it doesn't have.
Humans have approximately 100,000 taste buds and each one is connected
to the brain by a nerve. Each taste bud senses one of four basic stimuli
- sweet, sour, bitter and salty - from various parts of the tongue.
This, then, adds to the debate whether the best drinking water tastes
like nothing or whether it has flavor.
Water should have taste, but it's one that most experts agree shouldn't
stand out. It can be good tasting or bad and that goes back to the presence
of minerals in it. For instance, the absence of sulfur and chlorine add
to the taste of the water.
The nuances of good tasting water aren't just what you can taste, said
J.W. Rone, producer of the Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, winter festival
that hosts the Toast to the Tap water tasting every year. The best tasting
water is tasteless, odorless and colorless, but even so, it still ends
up tasting of something.
In 1990, von Wiesenberger conducted a water tasting for The American Institute
of Wine and Food during which a panel of eight food and wine experts judged
California municipal tap waters, each collecting their own tap water and
bringing it to the tasting. Prior to the judging, the consensus was that
the best tasting California drinking water came from the north and that
probably San Francisco or Santa Cruz would win the challenge hands down.
However, when the results of the blind taste tests were revealed, Southern
California's Huntington Beach walked away with the top honors as the state's
best tasting tap water.
"Water should have a positive taste," von Wiesenberger said.
"There shouldn't be the absence of anything. For water to taste correctly
on the palate, there must be certain minerals present. Potassium, magnesium,
calcium and even small amounts of sodium give water its fullness. If not
for these minerals, water, such as distilled water, tastes flat and dull."
The key, though, explained von Wiesenberger, lies in the ideal combination
and concentration of these minerals. Good tasting water is a subtle combination
"When there is a balance of minerals, they are harmonious and not
offensive to taste," von Wiesenberger said. "A perfect concentration
of minerals adds to the subtle nuances of a product whose most sought
after quality is often considered to be tastelessness. Too high a mineral
concentration and water takes on a tinny, metallic taste. Too low and
water tastes dull and flat.
"Minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and silica give water
a softness, a silkiness" von Wiesenberger added. "Body is another
important element to the taste of water. It gives water roundness on the
tongue as opposed to water produced by reverse osmosis, which oftentimes
is bland tasting. Water should taste as if it had just been scooped from
a running stream."
In the early 1960s, William Bruvold, a professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, conducted some of the first findings regarding the
importance of minerals to the taste of drinking water. Those studies showed
that certain combinations and concentrations of minerals in water were
more acceptable to tasters than others. His studies also concluded that
removing all mineral taste from domestic water might actually reduce its
Good tasting water is not the absence of everything. If it were, distilled
water would be a No. 1 best seller. But Metropolitan's Barrett, a trained
member of the district's flavor profile panel, a group that continually
samples water to detect and treat taste and odor problems before it gets
to consumers, said distilled water turns most tasters off because of its
flat, dull taste.
Beside the naturally occurring minerals that are a part of tap water,
drinking water suppliers, such as Metropolitan, must contend with flavors
added by the treatment process. Chlorine is one of the most commonly perceived
tastes associated with municipal water, said Barrett. Metropolitan has
reduced the chlorine taste by substituting the disinfectant chloramine,
a combination of chlorine and ammonia.
Water chemists continue to prod, coax and test water to bring out its
best, but in the end, they must contend with the consumers' varying taste
People tend to like what they are used to especially if they have been
drinking the same water for a long time. Often people like the water they
grew up with because they have imprinted that taste.
In von Wiesenberger's words, good tasting water is like drinking a fine
wine. It has to have substance and resonance.