To say that hydration is an invention is only a slight exaggeration. Water bottles have become a crucial accessory — a status symbol. How did that happen? This week we bring you an episode from our friends at the Slate podcast Decoder Ring. They investigate how bottled water transformed itself from a small, European luxury item to the single largest beverage category in America. It took savvy marketing from brands like Gatorade and Perrier, who pushed the idea that dehydration was a pervasive problem to be solved. Today hydration is a wellness cure-all, but the science doesn’t exactly match the marketing.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Incidentally" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Cautiously Optimistic" by OK Factor
Photo courtesy of Ivan Radic/Flickr CC.
Christina Cauterucci: I, actually, remember this very vividly because it, actually, turned into a fight, one of probably the top ten times we were annoyed with each other that year.
Dan Pashman: This is Christina Cauterucci. She’s a senior writer at Slate.
Christina Cauterucci: One of us started needling the other about their water consumption.
Dan Pashman: Christina and her wife were in the middle of a long car ride, somewhere in New Jersey.
Christina Cauterucci: I forget whether my wife, Deb, was making fun of me for being so concerned with whether we would have enough water for the rest of our car ride or whether I was saying to her, like, Hutz, weird that on this 4-hour car ride, you haven't drunk any of our water bottle. And I've like drained the whole thing.
Dan Pashman: Christina is rarely found without a glass of water by her side. As a teenager in the 2000s, she learned about water’s importance in health class. She read about it in magazines. She heard the advice to drink eight cups of water a day.
Christina Cauterucci: I probably couldn't even count the number of times that I've heard the eight glasses of water a day. It always seems to me that it was an inarguable fact that people weren't drinking enough water because otherwise why would we have to be told to drink more?
Dan Pashman: This is now received wisdom, right? Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Today, being properly hydrated is touted by experts and celebrities as one of the best things to do for your health, mood, focus, body, beauty, and overall wellness.
Dan Pashman: But Christina’s wife, Deb, wasn’t so sure. She’d recently read an article about how we’re over-hydrating.
Christina Cauterucci: And we actually had a fight about it! I'm sorry! This feels like a fundamental truth that everyone has agreed on in the world...
Dan Pashman: Except not that long ago, it wasn’t a fundamental truth. When I was growing up in the 80s and early 90s, not that long before Christina, we just didn’t worry this much about hydration. Today, my kids bring water to school every day and have water by their beds every night. I didn’t do that when I was their age. If you got thirsty in school you went to the water fountain. And guess what? We turned out fine. Still, Christina insists that today, we’ve got the better approach.
Christina Cauterucci: It's conventional wisdom for a reason!
Dan Pashman: But that reason only has a little bit to do with water.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people.
Dan Pashman: This week we have a special episode for you, from our friends over at the podcast Decoder Ring, it's a show from Slate show about cracking cultural mysteries. I'll let host, Willa Paskin, take it from here.
Willa Paskin: As human beings we need water, but the amount of water that we think that we need and the urgency with which we think we need it has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Hydration, being hydrated, staying hydrated: it’s a buzzword, a command, a concern, a business, a meme. But not that long ago, it wasn’t any of these things.
Willa Paskin: In this episode, I’m going to look at how we came to embrace hydration so fully and so passionately, so recently. It’s a change that has to do with money, lots of money, and the beverages and industries that have figured out how to make it by altering the way we think about something freely, widely available. And they've done this using a sales pitch so successful it has become indistinguishable from common sense. Why are we so damn hydrated?
Willa Paskin: There were three things that had to happen to make people like Christina worry about getting their eight glasses a day, three things that helped turn bottled water into the most popular beverage in America. Two of those things are conceptual and one is practical. I’m going to start with one of the concepts: The very idea of hydration.
Willa Paskin: So I'm trying to get at this sort of moment, basically, we like invent hydration. I mean, I think that's maybe that's like a dramatic way of putting it. But it seems to me like that is actually…
Christina Cauterucci: That is only slightly overstating I have to say.
Willa Paskin: Christie Aschwanden is the author of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery.
Christie Aschwanden: In a sense, hydration from a sports perspective really was sort of an invented thing.
Willa Paskin: So, obviously, again, people need to drink water. And if we don’t, eventually we get thirsty, we get disoriented, our bodies stop working properly. In this sense, human beings have always been aware of dehydration. We feel it. But intentionally examining how dehydration affects us — that’s relatively new. In fact, the general consensus for much of the 20th century was not to drink very much, even if you were running a marathon.
Christie Aschwanden: It used to be that people were encouraged not to drink anything during exercise. Yeah, so My friend Amby Burfoot, he won the Boston Marathon back in the 1960s. And, you know, back then he said they were explicitly told not to drink.
Willa Paskin: The idea was that the water just sloshed around in your stomach, sitting there, slowing you down, making you uncomfortable and all without helping you. This thinking didn’t just apply to marathoners.
[CLIP THE HISTORY OF STOKELY'S GATORADE DRINK]
CLIP (NARRATOR): Well, did you ever hear of giving a hot sweaty football player all the cold drink he wants? Never!
Willa Paskin: This is a commercial from the early 1970s. It's for Gatorade.
CLIP (NARRATOR): Never, that is until Gatorade! Because Gatorade gets in your system approximately 12 times faster than water.
Willa Paskin: This is the moment Christie was talking about earlier, the moment when the concept of hydration was invented. Or it might be more accurate to say that what Gatorade invented was the problem of dehydration. After all, you can’t sell people a solution to a problem they don’t know that they have. Gatorade was created in 1965.
Christie Aschwanden: I just want to preface this by saying that this is sort of like urban legend and like there's a story that's told about Gatorade. Basically, you had the University of Florida football team, the coach was concerned because his players were, "wilting during practice".
Willa Paskin: This concern was brought to the attention of one of the university’s physicians, a kidney specialist named Dr. Robert Cade. Cade and some colleagues concluded the players were sweating out too much water and salt and burning through too many calories without replenishing any of it. So they mixed up water, sugar and some salts, which they would cannily refer to by the scientific term, electrolytes — added some lemon juice to mask the funky taste and made Gatorade, named after the University of Florida’s mascot, the gator.
CLIP (NARRATOR): This is a laboratory. [FOOTBALL SOUNDS] That’s right a laboratory, where scientists working with the Florida Gators developed the greatest thirst invention since water, Gatorade...
Willa Paskin: That’s from the same 1970s Gatorade commercial, one of dozens mythologizing the company’s origin story. As the rest of the legend goes, the doctors first gave Gatorade to the all-freshman team, who beat the older, bigger B-team. Then the varsity squad started drinking it and had a winning season. In 1967, the Gators won the Orange Bowl for the first time, and the opposing coach supposedly chalked the victory up to Gatorade, saying “We didn't have Gatorade. That made the difference." Gatorade was on its way.
Willa Paskin: In the late 1960s, the university and Dr. Cade signed a deal with a food company to bring Gatorade to market. Around this same time, the company was also starting to develop the two big planks of its future marketing.
Willa Paskin: First, it was licensed by the NFL, which would soon be joined by the other sports leagues and later players. They helped Gatorade present itself as good enough for professional athletes, and so good enough for you. But the second thing was just as important. Gatorade sponsored its first scientific study into the effects of dehydration.
Christie Aschwanden: What ends up happening in the sports science space, in particular, is that science is used as marketing and you have this product or you have this thing a and you’re looking for sort of bonafide scientific evidence for how great it is.
Willa Paskin: This early study, done by a respected sports scientist on marathon runners, found that drinking something, Gatorade or water, was better than drinking nothing at all, which remains pretty sound advice.
[CLIP OF GATORADE COMMERCIAL]
CLIP (GATORADE SONG): Gatorade is thirst-aid for that deep down body thirst.
Willa Paskin: As you can hear in that ad, initially Gatorade got this message across by focusing on the idea of thirst. Thirst is an experience, it’s something you feel. The message was: when you feel thirsty, you should drink Gatorade. But in the years to come, gatorade would turn to the idea of hydration. And Hydration, as opposed to thirst, is drinking to address a condition, dehydration. In 1985, gatorade founded the Gatorade Sports Science Institute to study athletic performance.
CLIP (GATORADE SPORTS SCIENCE INSTITUTE): It's called the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. We test dehydration under extreme conditions.
Willa Paskin: Scientists and researchers, funded by the institute and elsewhere, came to a consensus that even a little dehydration, like 2 percent was bad for performance. But the thing about 2 percent dehydration is, you might not feel it. Which means, you could be a little dehydrated and not even know it. In order to avoid that, you have to drink even when you’re not thirsty.
Willa Paskin: This research was being done on elite athletes, but Gatorade’s market is bigger than just elite athletes. And this idea, that dehydration even in small amounts and for short periods is bad, and thirst is an unreliable guide, would spread far beyond the world of sports.
Willa Paskin: The 1970s were a great time to launch a sports drink. It was the decade of the jogging boom and the fitness craze. Americans were exercising more than ever and Gatorade would not be the only beverage to capitalize on this moment. Rather than focus on hydration though, this next drink sold itself on ideas about health, purity, self-betterment, and virtuous consumption. In other words, it introduced the second big concept on the road to peak water: the idea of Wellness.
Willa Paskin: Wellness and water are tightly intertwined now, but this entanglement began with a sparkling European water sold in a voluptuous green glass bottle.
CLIP (NARRATOR): Naturally sparkling from the center of the earth, Perrier.
Willa Paskin: That’s Orson Welles. In 1977, he became the spokesman for Perrier, which comes from a spring in Vergèze, France. People have been drinking water from it since Roman times, but they started bottling it under the name Perrier in the 19th century. That’s how far back bottled water goes in America, too, when it was sold primarily as a medicinal product. The brand Poland Springs, from the town of Poland Maine, started bottling then.
Willa Paskin: But in the U.S., the bottled water market bottomed out in the early 20th century with the introduction of chlorination. People started drinking tap water and bottled water became that five-gallon jug on a water cooler. In Europe though, the market never collapsed. Bottled water remained a luxury, with different tastes and mineral components, regularly served with dinner. Perrier was one of these waters, but by the 1970s its growth in Western Europe was flat, so it decided to try a well-financed relaunch of the brand in the United states.
[CLIP OF PERRIER ORSON WELLES 1979 COMMERCIAL]
CLIP (NARRATOR): Deep below the plains of Southern France in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, nature, herself...
Willa Paskin: The Orson Welles ad are the most famous part of that relaunch, and they helped Perrier position itself as more than water. Americans, after all, weren’t used to buying water in the first place.To overcome their skepticism, Perrier used Welles purring vocals to sell itself as a sophisticated, healthy, European substitute for diet sodas and alcohol.
CLIP (NARRATOR): Imported Perrier.
CLIP (ACTOR 1): It goes with good food.
CLIP (ACTOR 2): It's what I drink instead of a cocktail.
CLIP (NARRATOR): Refreshing Perrier.
Willa Paskin: Perrier also brought the price down but without making itself too cheap. It was able to become much more widely available in six packs at supermarkets while retaining what Time magazine called its snob appeal.
Willa Paskin: There was another thing going at this time that also had snob appeal: the aforementioned exercise craze.
Willa Paskin: Thanks to a number of focus groups Perrier realized very quickly that there was a lot of overlap between the people who were newly into aerobics and fitness and Perrier’s apirational customer base. Within months of launching in 1977, Perrier started sponsoring road races and built 100 Perrier exercise courses in cities across the country. A Washington Post story about the company positioning itself as “the healthful alternative beverage” for “the healthful alternative sport— jogging,” describes how in the very first race Perrier sponsored, runners at the finish line spat the Perrier out because they weren’t expecting the bubbles. The brand kept at it though, sponsoring the 1979 New York City Marathon. This all worked incredibly well.
Willa Paskin: In 1975 Perrier had been selling about 2.5 million bottles a year, only in restaurants, which means that, on average, in 1975, a little more than 1 percent of Americans were having one bottle of Perrier a year. By 1979, though, it was selling 200 million bottles yearly, 100 times more, and that number would only go up throughout the 1980s. And Perrier wasn’t alone. There was another European import that followed the Perrier playbook almost exactly, down to the gravel-y-voiced male pitchman.
[CLIP OF EVIAN COMMERCIAL]
CLIP (NARRATOR): I just started drinking Evian natural spring water from the French Alps. Like a new morning, it's always there for you to do something healthy.
Willa Paskin: Evian, a non-sparkling, flat water launched in 1978. It also became a status object favored by celebrities like Madonna and Jack Nicholson and affluent customers, who were interested in health and exercise.
Willa Paskin: In this ad from 1986, against the soundtrack of all this moaning, are a fit man and woman, seen in a series of quick cutting close ups of their clenched faces and sweaty muscle groups. They’re pumping iron and doing crunches, him in a tank top, her in legwarmers and a very high cut leotard bottom. It’s like the sexy version of a Gatorade commercial. And Evian wasn’t the only company trying to sell water, by selling sex.
CLIP (MAE WEST): What's all the noise I've been hearing about Poland Spring?...
Willa Paskin: In 1979, Poland Springs, which was financially struggling, hired Mae West, then in her mid-eighties, for a series of radio spots.
CLIP (MAE WEST): I used to have it delivered to my boudoir by a very handsome, young fella. Now he delivers Poland Spring all over the place. Well, I got rid of the fella but I still keep plenty of Poland Spring around. After all, it comes naturally.
Willa Paskin: The wild double-entendre-ing here is a little too in your face to be sophisticated and it didn’t help Poland Springs much. Perrier bought the company in 1980, and would go on to buy a number of others before the decade was out. By 1989, it controlled a sizeable percentage of the $1.7 billion dollar water market. If that market was much bigger than it had been in the mid-1970s, it was still just a small slice of the beverage market as a whole. The soft drink category was worth 43 billion dollars.
Willa Paskin: And the whole idea of paying for water still seemed ridiculous to a lot of people. In the 1987 movies Spaceballs, a Mel Brooks spoof of Star Wars, there’s a gag about Perri-Air, a can filled with breathable air, part of the joke being, “What are they going to try and sell us next?”, the answer: so much more water.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, the plastic bottle changes everything for the water industry. And we know that hydration may not have any real benefit but can it actually be bad for you? Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Next week on the show I talk with Nadiya Hussain. Since winning British Bake-Off , she’s gone from being a housewife in the north of England to an international food star, and a leading voice on issues of racism, sexism, and mental health.
CLIP (NADIYA HUSSAIN): Nobody says, oh, well, you know, you're not great at the moment. Your mental health is suffering. Why don't we just stick you in the biggest baking show in the country, if not the entire world? I had more panic attacks during Bake-Off than I've ever had in my life but the only saving grace for me was I was doing something that I loved.
Dan Pashman: I can’t wait for you to hear this conversation with you. Also, I want you to know we’re giving away a copy of Nadiya’s new cookbook, Nadiya Bakes. To enter, just sign up for our mailing list, which by the way comes with many benefits. Each week we tell you what everyone on team Sporkful is eating and reading, so you get great recs! If you’re already on our list, you’re automatically entered into this and all of our giveaways. If not, sign up now at Sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Okay, back to the show. Here again is Decoder Ring host, Willa Paskin.
Willa Paskin: At the end of the 1980s, bottled water was a small but growing market segment that still seemed needless to most people. But the pump was primed. Americans were more invested in exercise and health than ever before and looking for alternatives to sugary drinks. Thanks to Gatorade, they increasingly knew and cared about hydration. Thanks to Perrier and Evian, they’d become at least a little accustomed to the once foreign idea of buying bottles of water, which had been marketed to them as sophisticated objects of wellness.
Willa Paskin: And then 1989 a practical innovation came along that took water out of glass containers with French brand names and put it into the fridge at the bodega: a cheap, disposable plastic water bottle made of a material called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET. The lightweight, clear plastic that bottled water comes in to this day. The PET bottle brought the price of water down and it made it extremely convenient for consumers.
Michael Ballas: And that changed everything. I mean, it really changed the way the U.S. beverage consumer consumed beverages. You never in the 80s or 70s ever saw anybody walk down the street with a 12-ounce can of soft drinks. They just didn't do it. Nobody drank on the street.
Willa Paskin: Michael Ballas is the founder and chairman of the Beverage Marketing Corporation, a beverage industry consulting and research firm. He’s a beverage industry guy, and he wasn’t going to say anything critical about bottled water to me. But I found him and his colleague, Gary Hemphill, clarifying about water’s incredible sales pitch.
Michael Ballas: Water was dietetic, all natural, didn't have to be carbonated, didn’t have to be chilled, and more usage occasions than any other beverage. And plus, they had a healthy, good for you halo.
Gary Hemphill: You go into a store, you see something new, and you think, well, what the heck is this? You got to figure it out. You got to read the label, look at the ingredients. You don’t really have to do that with water. There’s not a comparable beverage that could possibly emerge, possibly ever, that will equate with the success story of water.
Willa Paskin: This made me laugh. You don’t say, nothing will ever be comparable to water, literally, the substance necessary to sustain life on this planet. But that’s the thing, nothing is comparable to water. On the one, hand selling it to us is such a cynical marketing feat. On the other, it almost sells itself.
Willa Paskin: Water is or should be free, but it’s also priceless. So, you know, definitely worth 99 cents. And at that price point, the bottled water boom was on. Dozens of new companies popped up of different types and status levels, most with names and labels that connoted purity and nature; like Fiji water, from a tropical island.
Willa Paskin: One by one, all the major beverage corporations, what I've taken to calling big water, got into the business, too. Nestle, which had purchased Perrier and, thus, Poland Springs in 1992, was first. In 1994, Pepsi started rolling out Aquafina, a purified municipal water, meaning a purified tap water. Finally, in 1999, Coca-cola, which held out so long because it was afraid of cannibalizing its own soft drink sales, began selling Dasani, also a purified municipal water. They used ads like this— in which a man dressed as a bear just out of hibernation, chugs a Dasani.
CLIP (DASANI BEAR): The whole natural mountain stream thing? It's fine, but this tastes crisp, fresh...
Willa Paskin: With hindsight, we know there are serious problems with the rise of bottled water. Environmental problems and social problems. The waste they create and the resources they use. The way these bottled waters, often sourced from municipal systems by private companies, stoke distrust in tap water, further undermining the public infrastructure necessary to keep that free water safe and drinkable. But in getting into the well documented sins of bottled disposable water I’m getting ahead of the story. Because In the 1990s, the bottled water honeymoon was on. Celebrities are drinking it and selling it. Cher Horowitz, the protagonist of Clueless, has a bedazzled over the shoulder bag just for her it-PET bottle. In Robert Altman’s Hollywood satire, The Player, the movie executive main character orders a different bottled water everywhere he goes, as a status play.
Willa Paskin: It was a cool, new-fangled, zero-calorie, all natural product, with tons of marketing muscle behind it, that you could just toss in your bag. As all of this is happening, something else changes, too, a shift in official hydration policy. In 1996 the American college of Sports Medicine, building on research done at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute among other places, recommended that athletes should attempt to “replace all the water lost through sweating or consume the maximal amount that can be tolerated.” They were recommending a one in one out policy for fluids. Again, this is not for regular people, but it still seemed like an indication that we ought to down as much water as we could. Which is basically what we went ahead and did. Michael Ballas again.
Micheal Ballas: From 1995-2005, bottled water grew over— in those forty quarters, each quarter over 20 percent.
Willa Paskin: This is why the 1990s are the demarcation decade for water, the before and after. If like me you became sentient in the 80s and early 90s, you probably didn’t grow up carrying around bottles of water, conscientiously drinking more. But if you became sentient towards the ends of that decade and into the aughts, you might have. Since the late 1990s water sales have only increased. In 2016 bottled water became the most popular beverage in America, and it’s still growing. But it’s not just bottled water that has gotten more popular. So has everything else to do with hydration. And to explain that, we have to turn to the wellness industry.
Willa Paskin: So as I’ve said, the idea of wellness has been a part of selling water from the start. But since the 1970s, wellness has become an industry in its own right. And though people who are into wellness would probably never consume sports drinks — they have too much sugar — or bottled water, they're bad for the environment and full of BPAs — it’s the wellness industry that has fully married these two beverage categories’ sales pitches: selling water as more than just water. Selling it as hydration. Amy Larocca is a writer who is working on a book about the wellness industry.
Amy Larocca: Water is free, except hydration is not necessarily free once you get into wellness.
Willa Paskin: You can get so many more hydration related products now, than you could in the 1990s, starting with just more kinds of water. You can buy mineral water, artisanal water, spring, natural, distilled, filtered, and also enhanced, probiotic, alkaline and raw. Then there’s all the stuff you can do to your water: filter it, not just with a Brita, or enhance it, with packets of vitamins and nutrients. And then there’s where you can put it, a wide variety of reusable bottles have grown into a $239 million dollar market in their own right. The reusable bottled water craze kicked off with Nalgenes, but now there are scores of options, in plastic, metal and glass, and one that has a large amethyst crystal inside of it from Gwyneth Paltrow’s GOOP store.
Willa Paskin: And there’s also reusable bottles that’s selling point aren't that they’re personalized, always handy, and good for the environment. It’s that they make you drink more. They’re huge, they have lights and music. They keep your water cold.
Amy Larocca: Once there's money to be made off of hydrating people, you're going to have this, oh my God, we're all dehydrated.
Willa Paskin: And being dehydrated, it’s no longer just about being physically off your game. Hydration is supposed to help with cognition, mood, focus, digestion, skin, and beauty. I saw one article titled “16 Celebrities, Who Swear Their Biggest Beauty Tip is Water”. And i know whenever I worry I’m not drinking enough water, I’m mostly fretting about the skin on my neck.
Amy Larocca: So the question in wellness is always like, is there an extra? If being chronically, severely dehydrated is bad for you skin, which, sure it is. Most people are not chronically, severely dehydrated. Is being over hydrated extra for you skin? And that? A lot of the wellness exists in that, like is extra possible?
Willa Paskin: Water, unlike so many things, really is necessary and good for you. So why not have more of it? As Amy put it, why just be okay, when you could be well? Why just be hydrated, when you could be more hydrated? Good plus good, is more good, right? Except now the science says something a little different. If through the 1990s research and consumer habits about water had risen in lockstep, in the early 2000s they began to diverge. Christie Aschwanden again.
Christie Aschwanden: There have been at least five or six documented cases of marathon runners, who have died from a condition called hyponatremia, which is basically — it's also called water intoxication. But basically, you're diluting your blood so much that nothing works properly.
Willa Paskin: I’m not trying to scare you about overhydration. You are unlikely to get hyponatremia. But the deaths did spark a re-examination of hydration recommendations in the sports world. And there’s a problem in decades of dehydration research and it’s that it didn’t distinguish between dehydration and thirst, something that was explained to me by the science writer Alex Hutchinson, who walked me through all this, and whose book I’ll tell you about in the credits.
Willa Paskin: Basically, to study dehydration, subjects are denied fluids until they’re 2 percent dehydrated, or more. And then, their performance is tested. And they’d do worse than when they weren’t dehydrated. But what if the problem wasn’t the dehydration. What if it was that they were thirsty and hadn’t been allowed to drink? A couple percentage points of dehydration might be just fine, as long as you can drink when you want to.
Willa Paskin: I want to say that hydration remains a very contentious and controversial issue when it comes to athletic performance. But there’s a lot indicating that, certainly, for regular people, you’re good. If you just drink when you’re thirsty.
Christie Aschwanden: You just need to drink to thirst and eat to hunger, like it's really that simple.
Willa Paskin: But that idea hasn’t trickled down to us just yet. Instead, we’re awash in hyper-hydration recommendations, not based in anything concrete, like the advice to drink 8 cups of water a day. In 2002, a nephrologist, a kidney doctor at Dartmouth, published an academic paper trying to find the source of the 8 by 8 factoid and he couldn’t find anything conclusive. 8 cups a day is actually kind of on the low-end now. Many influencers and celebrities recommend drinking far more. You can also buy things like a gallon drinking jug. One has cheery exhortations on it to keep you sipping all day, exhortations you need, because it’s hard to drink that much in one day. To me the issue with all of this isn't so much the water. Water’s water! It’s basically good for you, even if the only extra you get from it is more trips to the bathroom. But I don’t like how in elevating the importance of this genuinely miraculous fluid, we’ve found another thing we have to do exactly right.
Christie Aschwanden: There's this concept underlying it that is so pervasive in our society right now. And it's this idea that you always have to be doing something and that there's sort of this ideal version of yourself that's out there waiting. It's really up to you to get everything right and that it's possible to just absolutely optimize everything to be your best self.
Willa Paskin: Water has become a solution to the problem of better living, of wellness. But in this case, it’s a solution to a problem we don’t really have. When it comes to water, our bodies are good at telling us what we need. We could not sweat this one. Instead marketing has turned us into a nation of non-intuitive drinkers, assiduously chugging and chalking the effort up to progress — or better skin anyway.
Willa Paskin: If I’m making it sound like I think this is simple — come one, just drink when you’re thirsty — I know that it’s not. Before going into this episode I had the hubris to imagine that I was not a water person just because I didn’t carry a water bottle around. But I have since realized that I am just as incepted with these ideas as anyone. I just don’t express them on myself. I do it on my children.
Willa Paskin: Do you have a lot of Water bottles?
Kid: We have four of them...
Willa Paskin: That’s my older daughter. She’s 6.
Kid: One of my water bottles has Elsa and Olaf and it also — and I have a unicorn one...
Willa Paskin: She has a mermaid one and a dinosaur one. One is metal. Three are plastic. One was a gift. One was a replacement for one we lost, but then we found the one we thought we lost. They all have masking tape wrapped around them with her name written on them in sharpie.
Willa Paskin: Where do you take your bottle?
Kid: We take them pretty much everywhere we have to go.
Willa Paskin: Where's that?
Kid: Like, to school, to the park, to the museum…
Willa: So what happens if you leave the house without one?
Kid: Nothing, you just get water from somewhere else...
Willa Paskin: That part is not true. What happens when you leave the house without your water bottle is that your parents scurry around trying to find your water bottle: day care, nursery school, after school, camp. They all ask you to provide your child with a water bottle, and somehow this command bleeds into everything. Everywhere we go, we bring our kids water bottles, even to places where there already is water.
Willa Paskin: That’s why I got interested in this topic: Why we were doing this? Even though bottled water is actually responsible for there being less water fountains, in general.There is a water fountain at the playground! There’s a water fountain at school! Why are we lugging water everywhere? And the answer isn’t just convenience or habit or peer pressure. It’s because I want them to be hydrated and I am genuinely concerned about what will happen if they’re not, like, even for a few minutes. I would make them wait for food, but I would never make them wait for water.
Willa Paskin: And that feels like common sense. But it’s also marketing, decades of companies selling us something that we really need, so as to make us think we need it even more than we really do. And even though I see that now I haven’t sent them anywhere without a water bottle just yet.
Willa Paskin: Hydration. Do you know what hydration is?
Kid: Hmm. Something about water.
Willa Paskin: This is Decoder Ring, I’m Willa Paskin. You can find me on twitter at @WillaPaskin, and if you have any cultural mysteries you want us to decode, you can email us at DecoderRing@slate.com. If you haven’t yet, subscribe and rate our feed in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. And even better, tell your friends. This podcast was written by Willa Paskin. It was edited by Benjamin Frisch. Decoder Ring is produced by Willa Paskin and Benjamin Frisch. Cleo Levin is our research assistant. I want to give an especial thanks to Alex Hutchinson, who helped so much in my understanding of the science of hydration and whose book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance was indispensable. I also want to thank James Salzman and Elizabeth Royte, and recommend their books Drinking Water: A History and Bottlemania. Thanks also to Gabriel Roth, June Thomas, Shannon Paulus, Eric Hansen, Fernando Galiana, Bruce Nevins, Tanner Watt, Laura Bennett, Savita Jones, and all the people who gave us help and feedback on the way.
Dan Pashman: That’s Willa Paskin of the Slate podcast Decoder Ring. Their new season just started a few weeks ago, so check out their other episodes by searching Decoder Ring in your podcast app. They’ve got an episode about soap operas, and one I really loved about blue foods. Why aren’t there more blue foods? Listen to find out, those episodes and more are up now from Decoder Ring.
Dan Pashman: Next week on The Sporkful, British Bake-Off champ, Nadiya Hussain. Be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to be entered to win her latest cookbook. Sign up now at Sporkful.com/newsletter. And while you wait for that one, in last week’s show, we share one of the most popular episodes of all time in Sporkful history: Is a hot dog a sandwich? I gotta say, re-listening it help up a lot better than I thought. I really enjoyed hearing it again. I think you will, too. So check it out.