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Water has a taste and not all water tastes the same. Taste is subjective and influenced by both your own biology and the water source.
Let’s get into how source and taste receptors affect water’s flavor, what different types of water options are available, and what to do if you just can’t get yourself to drink enough because you don’t like how it tastes.
The most important dimension of a water source’s effect on how it tastes has to do with the minerals that are dissolved in the water.
Ever seen the term “parts per millions” (ppm) on your bottle of water? This refers to how much of a particular mineral is present in a given volume of water.
For example, if you buy a 1-liter (33.8 fluid oz.) bottle of sparkling mineral water, your bottle might say that it contains 500 ppm of total dissolved solids (TDS).
Not all of these minerals are readily detected by your taste buds. The average person may not even be able to tell the difference between mineral water and, say, spring water.
- HCO₃⁻ (bicarbonate)
- SO₄²⁻ (sulfate)
- Ca²⁺ (calcium)
- Mg²⁺ (magnesium)
You’re not necessarily going to see these chemical compound names plastered all over your bottle’s advertising. But if you look closely at your water’s ingredients, you may see these and other ingredients, like sodium (Na⁺), potassium (K⁺), and chloride (Cl⁻) in the TDS breakdown.
Humans have taste receptor cells (TRCs) that can differentiate between five major “taste qualities”:
Each of these qualities causes TRCs to activate a different part of your brain, and water has been found to activate the “sour” TRCs.
This study even found that manually activating the “sweet” and “sour” TRCs could alter the way that water tasted to the mice, causing them to change their drinking behaviors.
With water, acid-sensing TRCs are key to the “sour” reaction that affects the way water tastes to us. These TRCs are connected to the part of your brain known as the amygdala. This area is involved in processing emotions and in working memory.
Scientists believe this connection has evolved because of the survival need to sense that certain tastes, like bitter, may mean that food is bad or poisonous.
This applies to water, too: If water has an unusual taste, this might mean it’s contaminated, so your body forces you to instinctively spit it out to avoid possible infection or harm.
A 2016 study seems to support this idea. Researchers found that strong or distinct flavors like “bitter” and “umami” resulted in heightened amygdala activity.
This suggests that your body is highly evolved to be keenly aware of certain tastes. This can make different types of waters taste noticeably different from each other, and emotional reactions associated with those tastes can also affect your overall perception of taste.
The type of water you drink can change the taste, too. Here are some of the most common types:
- Tap water usually runs directly to your home or into a building from a local municipal water source. These sources are often treated with fluoride to protect tooth enamel, which can affect the taste. The type of pipe (such as copper) and their age can also change the taste.
- Spring water is sourced from a natural freshwater spring, often in a mountainous region with a lot of clean runoff from snow or rain. Minerals collected as the water flows down mountains and across soil can affect the taste.
- Well water is sourced from underground aquifers deep in the soil. It’s usually filtered, but the high concentration of soil minerals can still influence how it tastes.
- Sparkling water comes in all shapes and sizes nowadays, but it’s typically just mineral water that’s been carbonated with added carbon dioxide (CO2). The mineral content, along with the fizzy sensation of carbonation and its high acidity, both influence its taste. Many also include added flavorings or juice.
- Alkaline water has naturally occurring, ionized minerals that raise its pH level, making it less acidic and giving it a “smoother” taste. Many alkaline waters are found naturally near mineral-rich volcanos or springs, but they can also be artificially alkalized.
- Distilled water is made from the steam of boiled water, purifying it of any minerals, chemicals, or bacteria.
You might find it hard to make yourself drink enough water if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the taste of water.
If that case for you, there are many ways to make it taste better.
Here are some tips to make sure you stay hydrated and enjoy the water drinking experience a bit more:
- Squeeze in some citrus, such as lemon or lime, for some flavor and for a little extra vitamin C.
- Throw in some fruits or herbs, such as strawberries, raspberries, ginger, or mint. Crush or muddle them for a bit more flavor.
- Try sparkling water instead of regular water if the sensation of carbonation makes it more palatable to you.
- Make flavored ice cubes with fruit juice or other ingredients.
- Use sugarless water flavoring packets if you’re in a rush and want to flavor your water.
There are water pitchers and bottles that have basic filters (often using “activated charcoal”) marketed as removing odor and flavor elements from water. Organizations like Consumer Reports and NSF International offer more information about water filters of all kinds.
So yes, water does have a taste. And that’s most affected by:
- Where it’s from. Where your water is sourced makes a huge difference in the flavor you taste when you drink.
- Your own taste experience. Taste receptors connected to your brain influence how you interpret the flavor of the water you’re drinking.
If you don’t like the taste of water, there are other options to stay hydrated and make it taste better.