What Does Water Taste Like?
Does water have a taste? I was surprised to find that during casual conversations about food and drink, water often came up as the being bland, tasteless and boring. Bland I can concede. Boring, sure. But tasteless, definitely not. I inadvertently appeared to have taken one side of the age-old debate: what, if anything, does water taste like? Each camp vehemently defends their stance, and I wanted to know, is there a definitive answer to the whether or not water has a taste.
Flavour vs Taste
Firstly, we need to clarify something. The terms flavour and taste are often used interchangeably, but scientifically, they mean very different things. Put simply, taste is an aspect of flavour.
When talking about taste we are talking exclusively about the experience on our tongues. When we eat a food, molecules in the food interact with our taste buds and we experience one of the five broad food tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savoury (umami).
Flavour, on the other hand, encompasses a much broader range of sensory information. The texture, temperature, smell and visual appearance of your food or drink all play into your perception of flavour. Without a concept of flavour, humans would struggle to tell the difference between even vastly different things like coffee beans and almonds, both of which have a bitter taste, but completely different flavour profiles.
Both flavour and taste likely evolved in humans (and many other animals) as a way of distinguishing between foods we could eat and those that are harmful to us. For example, plants such as certain varieties of cassava, contain a lethal dose of cyanide if eaten raw. Cyanide in high quantities can taste overly bitter to us, as a way of dissuading us from further consumption.
With that clarified, it’s time to move onto some different types of water.
Hard water vs Soft water
There are numerous differences between hard and soft water, but the ones that make the most difference regarding taste are the mineral quantities in each. Hard water will typically have higher concentrations of magnesium and calcium than soft water. This is caused by the water’s interaction with rocks like limestone as it makes its way to the surface and results in a slightly bitter, ever so salty taste. Some examples of hard water include Evian and Fiji.
Soft water, on the other hand lacks these components and so is often described as flat and lacking complexity. The reason for the lack of these components varies from brand to brand, but generally it’s because they haven’t gone through the same geological features add these minerals to them. Some examples of water like this are Buxton or Smartwater.
Tap water often gets the reputation that’s bad for you. The truth of the matter is that in the majority of countries you can almost always drink water straight from the tap with no ill effect. If you can’t, it will be clearly advertised.
Trace amounts pollutants have been found in most tap water, but well within tolerable limits for human. The one that gets the most attention is chlorine, which is added by water companies as a disinfectant. In the UK, there will often be 0.5mg/l of chlorine present in the tap water. The WHO sets the maximum tolerable limit at 5mg/l, meaning the chlorine in the tap water poses little to no threat. It does affect the taste though, as anyone who has swallowed a mouthful of pool water, which usually has about 3mg/l of chlorine, will tell you.
Tap water remains the most difficult to define in terms of taste however, since it can vary not just from country to country, but region to region, and even town to town. It will typically be a soft water though, as this is preferred for most homes due to the reduced risk of causing calcium deposits within pipes or on dish-ware.
Packaged waters, as they are usually water from common sources (tap water) and are often given the much more attractive name ‘filtered water’. These are passed through a filter which removes many of the chemicals we associate with tap water, such as chlorine. Examples of packaged waters include Dasani and Pure Life.
They’ve become wildly popular as home filtration devices become cheaper and more widely available. Most will remove chlorine, as well as magnesium and calcium, which leads to what’s arguable the most ‘tasteless’ water possible. Even this is not without any taste whatsoever though, as it’s almost impossible to get water to a purity of 100%.
In addition, saliva is naturally ever so slightly salty. So even if you drink filtered water, you will still taste the slight bitterness of your own mouth that your saliva naturally suppresses.
Does water have a taste? Yes, but a subjective one. In a perfect scenario, perfectly filtered water could be considered tasteless, but in the real-world water will always have trace elements in it that give it some form of taste
The concept of taste is a vast complicated subject that is defined as much by our physiology as the taste itself. For example, as a child I injured my tongue in such a way that I now have difficulty tasting sweetness. What’s more, our ability to explain our experiences is limited by language and our own internal thoughts, a concept known as qualia. Broadly speaking, that means you and I may both enjoy a glass of cold water, but will experience it differently, though we may both come to the conclusion that it’s refreshing.
Ultimately then, the question does water have a taste is yes, but just what taste it is depends not only on the source, but also on you as an individual. Perhaps what we can all agree on though, is that water certainly is refreshing and we should definitely be drinking more of it.