Tuesday, March 26, 2013

More Tap Water, Less of Everything Else

I heard that soft drink sales are down, an unexplained trend that seems to be about 5 or 10 years behind the same pattern in beer. When I looked into this, though, I found that other beverages are also declining — not coffee, tea, energy drinks, or green drinks, but pretty much everything else: milk, juice, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, you name it, it’s dropping off pretty much across the board. In the case of milk the declines might be blamed on higher prices rather than declining demand, but as we have seen before, a temporary increase in the price of an already expensive product can change people’s habits and lead to a permanent decline in consumption.

So people are drinking more tap water? That’s what the evidence seems to point to. There is no way to measure the consumption of flowing water as a beverage, though. Drinking is only an incidental use of municipal water, less than 1 percent of the total delivered, so even a drastic change in the amount of water people drink wouldn’t register. Drinking water also comes from wells and springs, and the volume of that water, in general, isn’t measured at all.

I know I have been drinking more water and less of everything else in the last five years or so, but I am as much at a loss to explain the trend in my own style of living as I am when looking at the aggregate trends. I had vague thoughts of saving money and losing weight when I switched to water, and that makes sense. Water is the least expensive zero-calorie beverage out there. It’s logical, but I don’t think that it really explains anything. I have lots of thoughts about improving my health and finances, and most of them don’t lead to long-term action. Water is the beverage of last resort, and perhaps that is a more important factor. Water is easy. It’s what you have when you didn’t plan ahead. People pressed for time are perhaps tiring of the planning and storage that other beverages require.

I think there may be a rejection of the existential emptiness of beverages too. We have long known that soft drinks were nothing more than flavored, sweetened tap water, but somehow now that thought is sinking in. Even orange juice may be mostly tap water — that’s if it says “from concentrate.” It’s that view of beverages that makes people say, “Why bother?” If you are going to drink tap water, you might as well get the real thing, undisguised and undiluted. But that reaction has not caught up to coffee and energy drinks — at least not yet.