Testing festival-goers taste: bottle or tap?

September 16, 2011

By Maham Khan

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(Flickr/dirac3000)
'Front and Center's' Maham Khan takes the question of bottle versus tap water to the streets.

WBEZ’s Front and Center series covers a host of environmental issues in the Great Lakes region–-from the air Midwesterns breathe to the water they drink. Water quality is a big challenge. Sure, Chicago has lots of freshwater – a resource many are clamoring for. But Front and Center was interested in another debate, a controversy that just wouldn't go away: Which is better – tap or bottled water? The environment and a person's health were at stake in its answer. But for some, it could just came down to taste. Front and Center’s Maham Khan decided to do a little experiment this summer at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival.

There was no better place to find thirsty people, willing to sip some water, than at a street festival on a hot July Sunday. Khan filled one bottle with tap water and another with bottled water. She asked festival-goers at the Milwaukee Avenue Arts Festival in Chicago to try one of each and determine which was what and which they liked better.

Loud speakers blasted everything from live hip-hop to Polka music. Patrons wandered from booth to booth in search of art. But at Khan’s booth, instead of art, they found a challenge: “Which do you like better?” WBEZ's volunteer Emilja Novatovich asked this question of each sipper after offering them unlabeled cups of water.

Victor Navarez was sure his was tap water.

“Tap water. Of course, you can taste the plastic…the chemical they put in there. I grew up with tap water, and I just think it’s good. And now, I mean they’re selling us water!” Navarez explained.

The little experiment may have been unscientific but it took place against a backdrop laden with science—around purity, nutrition, environment and even taste.

One festival-goer smacked his mouth as he tasted the samples.
“I can’t tell the difference” he said at first. But after more smacking, determined one was tapped, the other was bottled—and he preferred the tap.

But his estimation was wrong—and the samples were reversed.

“Both of these are exactly the same right?” Angie Hall asked. Hall thought Maham and company were messing with her because they also asked folks if they could identify which is tapped or bottled. Like Hall, over half of the sippers could not tell the difference.

“They taste exactly the same, so therefore why fill up landfills with plastic bottles?” Hall asked.

Hall’s question got right into the kind of questions one side of the debate asked. Many of the pro-tap water drinkers at the festival brought up their concerns about the carbon foot print bottled water might leave behind. The advocacy group Food and Water Watch said it was a pretty big footprint—75 percent of plastic bottles still end up in landfills instead of being recycled.

One taster was pleased to learn that the sample he preferred was bottled water, which he often invested in.

Which brought up another contingent—Americans who collectively spend $21 billion a year on bottled water—some insisted it was taste; others were convinced bottled water is more pure—and convenient. A lot of the bottled water lovers said water on the go is a plus.
Samplers had their convictions about what was at stake in the choice—and it turned out, a blind taste test was not easy.

Ramon Rodriguez confessed he was just thirsty and had no idea there was difference. He was visiting from Puerto Rico.

He tried the bottled water first.

“Ugh; that was awful,” he said. A bit of an overreaction later, he tried the tap water.“Ah, a lot fresher,” he sighed.

In a sample of more than 300 thirsty festival-goers, almost half of the sampled Chicagoans—and one Puerto Rican visitor in particular—preferred the taste of Lake Michigan tap water over bottled.
 

Music Button: Ron Trent & Chaz Daimer, "Morning Factory", (Prescription)
Music today provided by guest DJ, DJ Frique