Comments Off on Labels

Want to steer away from controversy at your next dinner engagement? 

Avoid three topics:  Politics, religion, and what constitutes the best drinking water. 

Bottled or tap?  Spring-fed or snow melt?  Brand names or generic?  Isn’t it all just water?

Perrier launched the bottled water craze by putting a few ounces of “imported” H20 into a fancy bottle and selling it for a great deal of money.  More than 400 companies have since followed suit.

Brands include Venus, which markets itself as “the water for women.”  For those who are thirsty for something international, there’s Himalaya, Fiji, Mai Dubai, Panama Blue, and Samaria.  If you’re yearning to think about breakfast throughout the day, there’s Kellogg’s Special K20 Protein Water.  

As far as we know, Earth is the only place in the solar system that is blessed with liquid water.  It’s not off the mark to describe it as a miraculous medium.  As residents of Nevada, California, and Utah are discovering anew this year, life disappears when water disappears. 

Water covers two-thirds of our planet.  It emerges from drinking fountains for free, and costs only a few pennies from the tap.  So why do we buy it in bottles at the rate of five dollars a gallon — considerably more than the current cost of gasoline?

It’s because bottled water tastes better.  Right?

Independent taste tests consistently say otherwise.  When people don’t see the labels – when all we have to rely on is our taste buds – the results are often surprising.

When John Stossel worked as a consumer reporter for ABC News, he engineered a blind comparison of a number of water samples.  The test included Evian and Iceland Spring (expensive imports); Aquafina (America’s number one bottled brand); American Fare (Kmart’s discount brand); Poland Spring (bottled not in Poland, but here in the States); and some water from a public drinking fountain from the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. 

Only one water was rated “bad.”  That was Evian, the most expensive.  Kmart came in first, Aquafina second, and, to the surprise of all the participants, the Harlem tap water came in third.  Even those who declared beforehand they couldn’t abide the taste of tap water loved what came from the ancient underground pipes of NYC. 

Recent winners of the “best tasting water in America” competition, by the way, have come from the public systems of Hamilton, Ohio, and Easthampton, Massachusetts.   

Laboratory tests also consistently show that bottled water – up to 500 times more expensive than tap – is not any cleaner or healthier than the water that comes from our public utilities. 

Stossel asked the Bottled Water Association for an opinion from one of their own experts.  They recommended Dr. Stephen Edberg of Yale University’s School of Medicine.  Stossel asked:  “Is bottled water healthier than tap?”  Edberg answered, memorably, “I wouldn’t say, uh, it’s healthier than tap water.  I mean, uh, it’s both, they both provide, uh, water.”

Bottled water is amazingly convenient, of course.  But the use-once-throw-away plastic containers are becoming an ecological nightmare.  And we must admit that the real attraction of bottled H20 is that it has been brilliantly marketed.  Those special labels make regular old water seem, uh, truly extraordinary.  Even good sense and good taste have a hard time overcoming the biases imposed by clever branding.

All of us are capable of being fooled by labels.  That includes our encounters with fellow human beings.

In the New Testament book that bears his name, the apostle James offers this strong warning:  “If you show special attention to the person wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor person, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:3-4)

In our celebrity-obsessed culture, it’s tempting to treat people differently because of their packaging.

What are the chances that you’ll meet someone important today?  Every person you see, every driver sitting behind the wheel in that snarl of traffic, everyone standing in line beside you at Subway, is a human being crafted in the image of God. 

The only people you will meet today, in fact, will be uniquely special and infinitely treasured.  Each of them will be the Real Thing, no matter what disguise they happen to be wearing.

When it comes to water and relationships, we don’t have to get fooled by the labels.    

Evian, after all, is just “naïve” spelled backwards.