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Taste where you live

Have you ever noticed an epic meal or a memorable glass of tap water…on vacation?

This year I travelled to Portland for a third summer, and for the third time I experienced the same changes in my health. While scratching my head over this, my taste buds provided some clues. Throughout the vacation I was strangely puckering over lemonade and drooling over pork and beef. The tap water was insanely delicious. Food flavors seemed stronger in the Northwest, despite the scarcity of decent Mexican food. The new environment radically affected the taste of food for me and my family. What was behind this phenomenon?

H2O et. al.

We already know that environment has an impact on the development of certain flavors. Delicious San Francisco sourdough thrives on certain bacteria blowing in the Bay Area wind. New Yorkers believe their mineral-rich tap water creates a world-famous pizza. The Southwest boasts a knack for spicy cuisine. And Julia Child once insisted that the Santa Barbara tap water “turns my Chinese tea into mud.” Water, maybe even rain, could be the secret to Portland’s foodie paradise.

A cruise through water quality reports for Orange County and Portland revealed some surprising contrasts that may explain changes in taste as well as physical symptoms.

*Mileage: Portland benefits from relatively pure water sourced from a forested watershed only 25 miles away. Southern California water is derived from multiple sources that travel between 444 and 1440 miles via rivers, aqueducts, and groundwater. In Orange County, waste water is also treated and recycled back into the groundwater drinking supply in an effort to meet the increasing water demand. While our water is closely monitored and tested, we have to wonder if these trusted scientific instruments are truly as sensitive as our bodies.

*Water hardness (as CaCO₃): Water hardness refers to the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water. Portland water from the Bull Run Watershed is very soft at only 1/2 grain/gallon. Laguna Beach water is very hard at 16 grains/gallon. Water hardness (dissolved minerals) can inhibit aroma and taste.

    “Water is a very good natural solvent and helps develop the aroma of coffee and tea. The amount of temporary hardness (limescale) in the water affects the dissolution of aromatics, for example in tea and coffee. The higher the proportion of limescale in the water, the lower is the ability to dissolve. With a low scale content in drinking water, the aroma of tea and coffee develops better, as does that of cooked foods.” – Brita Water Filter Systems

Though it may not boost flavor, water hardness may offer some health benefits. Potatoes and vegetables cooked in hard water showed increased calcium content, while cooking in soft water decreased calcium content. Water low in minerals is more unstable and able to leach minerals – including toxic ones – from pipes and pots. This chemistry might explain why a handful of studies have associated increased water hardness with reduced risk of disease. Yet the multitude of variables in our water and body chemistries make it impossible to incriminate water softness alone.

*Total dissolved solids: Similarly, the total amount of all dissolved solids in Laguna Beach water is very high at 590 ppm compared to 28 ppm in Portland.

* Aluminum: Drinking water in Laguna Beach has an alarmingly high amount of aluminum, averaging .17 ppm in 2010 – roughly .17 mg/L. The range of detections varied from .07 to .23 ppm. This is disturbing data considering that a large study found

“cognitive decline with time was greater in subjects with a higher daily intake of aluminum from drinking water (≥0.1 mg/day, P = 0.005) or higher geographic exposure to aluminum. Using a Cox model, a high daily intake of aluminum was significantly associated with increased risk of dementia.” – Journal of Epidemiology, 2008

If we drink the recommended 8 cups or 1.5L of water per day, we would be drinking an average of .25 mg of aluminum per day outside of other food and environmental exposure! Aluminum is also found in hard anodized cookware, packaging, many baking powders, antiperspirants, and vaccines. Keep in mind, bioavailability of aluminum is higher in water than in food. Portland water shows aluminum content of .054 ppm.

*Sodium: Portland water contains an average of 8.5 ppm of sodium, while Laguna Beach water contains 95 ppm. There is no regulation on sodium content, though we know it acts as a vital electrolyte and dramatically affects our cells. People who are highly sensitive to sodium may want to note this aspect of Orange County drinking water and take precautions when softening hard water with sodium. In addition, bottled mineral water often contains up to 50% RDA of sodium.

* Calcium: Laguna Beach water contains 66 ppm of calcium, equivalent to 66 mg/L. Adults require roughly 1000 mg of calcium per day and drink about 2 liters of tap water per day. In Laguna Beach, calcium intake through tap water consumption would be about 13% of the RDA. Portland contains an insignificant 1.3 ppm of calcium. Magnesium levels generally follow calcium levels in each city. Minerals can vary widely between cities as well as sources within cities as discussed by a recent study of the mineral content of tap and bottled waters.

*Fluoride: Portland does not add fluoride to their water, and has naturally occurring levels between <.050 ppm – .13 ppm. Laguna Beach adds fluoride to maintain an average .8 ppm level. The EPA recently reduced the maximum allowed level to 4 ppm or 4 mg/L, and their secondary standard is set at 2.0 mg/L. Residents can remove fluoride in tap water with distillation or reverse osmosis filtration.

*Chloride: Chloride in Laguna Beach water is much higher at 93 ppm; Portland drinking water shows only 2.4 ppm. The by-products of chlorine disinfection are carcinogenic and measured separately.

*Turbidity: Cloudiness of Portland water is much higher at 2 ppm NTU. Laguna Beach water is clear at .4 NTU.

*Nitrates: Portland water has .09 ppm of nitrates (NO₃-N). Laguna Beach does not list all of its possible contaminants, but our source, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, releases a report that indicates rather high nitrate levels (as N) betwen .4 – 1.0 ppm. In a new Taiwan study, nitrate levels above .31 ppm in drinking water were associated with a significant increase in childhood brain tumors.

Keep in mind that some foods are extremely high in nitrates, including celery, lettuce, and spinach. Studies are exploring how nitrates can be dangerous, theorizing that nitrates can form carcinogens when exposed to certain compounds in the body. This interaction may explain how some nitrate sources could be more harmful than others, as in the case with processed meats. Further complicating things, vitamin C appears to play a role in either preventing and promoting the carcinogenic activity depending on the body chemistry. Research hints that the combination of vitamin C with lipids (fat) may increase the carcinogenic risk of nitrates.

Metals and minerals: Portland water contains <.5 ppb – 1.4 ppb of arsenic. Barium is .00079 ppm – .00959 ppm. Copper is <.03 ppm – .0036 ppm. Lead is .02 ppb – .15 ppb. Laguna Beach water contains higher maximum levels of arsenic and barium, with 0-2.8 ppb of arsenic and 0 – .12 ppm of barium. Copper and lead measurements from residential homes were comparatively much lower in Laguna Beach, and higher Portland levels might be affected by leaching due to softer water.

Water treatment: Portland uses chlorine, ammonia, and sodium hydroxide to decontaminate the water. Toxic residue from this process includes DBPs (disinfectant by-products) like residual chlorine (.1-2.2 ppm), trihalomethanes (21 ppb), and haloacetic acid (25 ppb). Laguna Beach DBPs includes chlorine (.03-3.7 ppm), trihalomethanes (27-62 ppb), and haloacetic acid (9-29 ppb). More carcinogenic compounds are being discovered in water distributed with PVC piping, and chlorine treatment appears to increase toxicity.

Exposure to contaminants: Bull Run is an open-air system with exposure to rain, sun, and naturally occurring microorganisms like coliform bacteria, Giardia lamblia, and Cryptosporidium. Constant monitoring helps reduce risk of dangerous levels, but frequent low levels of these organisms may introduce unknown risks to overall health.

pH: The pH of Portland water ranges from 7.2 to 8.2 and Laguna Beach water averages at 7.9.

You are what you drink

I have concluded that soft water must be the secret to Portland’s delectable desserts, though there are countless factors at work. And with 70% of my body made of water, it’s likely that Portland’s sparkling supply affected my symptoms as well. Unfortunately this mystery is infinitely complicated by metals, minerals, microbiological contaminants, disinfectant by-products, and other chemicals. Water testing has only scratched the surface, and limits for substances are still defined for average healthy people without regard to immune status, age, gender, deficiencies or excesses, etc. To make the most of it, get educated on your own body chemistry with blood tests for mineral levels. Then check out local water reports to see if you are drinking your way toward or away from health. Every drop counts!

Major References:

Health and Aesthetic Aspects of Drinking Water

Portland Water Quality Report 2011

Portland Water Quality Report April 2011 – Additional data including Bull Run and groundwater readings

Laguna Beach Water Quality Report 2011

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Water Quality Report 2011

1 comment to Taste where you live

  • Most Americans don’t boil our water unless there is a water main break, flood or pubilc announcement by the government. Our water supplier is supposed to notify us if our water doesn’t meet EPA or state standards or if there is a waterborne disease emergency. If we know all the contaminants in our water these days, we should take more precaution. Yeah, I agree, purifier + boiling is the best way to go! (I heard boiling alone doesn’t get rid of all the chemicals and metals in tap water)exile

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