Beyond differences between hard and soft water; clear and turbid water, most people would probably say that water is the taste of nothing – an exactly neutral flavor.
After all, we’re made mostly of water, aren’t we? If water had a flavor, we’d be able to taste it ourselves.
It’s not quite as simple as that. Humans are mammals, and all mammals are required to seek and drink from sources of water to remain hydrated. This means that there is a biological imperative to be able to determine a taste for water.
Taste isn’t just about determining what is fine cuisine, it’s a survival sense.
A basic example would be how knowing whether something is salty or sweet can tell you about its salt or sugar content: two substances that are essential to bodily functions.
It follows that for a liquid as important to our biology as water, we would need to have some way of detecting when it was in our mouths.
Scientists researching how brain activity responded to various taste stimuli had some results which may surprise you:
Water is sour.
If your first response to this was “What on Earth?”, then keep reading. All will be explained.
Where Does Water Get Its Taste?
A part of the brain called the hypothalamus triggers thirst, but isn’t responsible for taste. These signals come to the brain from areas of your mouth- particularly from the taste buds on your tongue.
In experiments, scientists have been able to see that these taste receptors also react to water.
Your mouth is naturally full of saliva, which plays a role in digestion. Saliva is naturally ‘basic’ – which doesn’t mean ‘simple’ in this instance; it refers to an alkaline liquid.
Saliva is alkaline because it consists of, among other things, bicarbonate ions. These ions have a negative charge.
Water is considered a neutral solution, which means it is neither alkaline nor acidic; but when water enters your mouth, it washes away the saliva that is present there – neutralizing your mouth.
In response, enzymes in your mouth instantly begin creating more bicarbonate ions to quickly replace the saliva that was lost. This reaction leaves behind excess protons, which have a positive charge.
Positively charged substances are acidic, which, as you may know from other acidic foodstuffs like lemon juice or vinegar, have a sour flavor.
In this way, water activates the sour response from your taste receptors: which is how your brain registers the taste of water.
To clarify, this doesn’t mean that you should approach a glass of water looking for the taste of vinegar. Taste is complicated, and it has a complex partnership with smell and many other factors.
If you drink water and notice a sour flavor, it’s far more likely that your water source has been tainted.
Water should, for the most part, taste of nothing.
Types Of Water Sources
There are, however, plenty of other factors which can determine the taste of the water that you drink.
Tap water – This water runs to your home from a centralized water supply, and is managed by a municipal body. Can you drink tap water? In wealthier parts of the world, you usually can, but this varies by location.
Substances such as fluoride are added to this water in trace amounts to protect tooth enamel, which impacts the taste. Want to know how to remove fluoride from water? The nature of the water supply, such as the age of the system or the material of the pipe, can also affect the taste.
Spring water – This is bottled from a natural source of freshwater, typically in mountains, where the runoff from snow and rain forms streams. Minerals from the mountains themselves collect in this running water, providing different health benefits and tastes depending on where it is sourced.
Well water – A well is an underground water source in which rock, soil, and sand have acted as natural filters. As such, well water has a strong taste from the high amount of minerals present.
Sparkling water – This comes in many forms, but is essentially bottled mineral water that has been carbonated.
The mineral content combines with the acidic flavor of CO2 and fizzy bubbles to give sparkling water a distinct, bitter taste. It is often mixed with fruit flavors or sweeteners to make it a more palatable product.
Alkaline water – This is similar in concept to mineral water, except that the minerals contained are ionized, making this water slightly ‘basic’.
Alkaline water occurs naturally in volcanic springs, although the product you buy could also have been artificially alkalized. The taste of alkaline water can be described as ‘smooth’.
Distilled water – This is water created from a specific method of purification, typically used by survivalists. Wild water is boiled to evaporate it, ridding it of unwanted minerals, chemicals, bacteria, and parasites.
The water vapor is then collected and considered ‘clean’. This is a method of seeking ‘pure water’, but unless you are in a laboratory setting, this type of water is of most use to people in a survival scenario.
Summary: Hard Water Vs. Soft Water
Hard water refers to water that has a high amount of calcium and magnesium in it – more than 120 parts per million. By comparison, soft water has an absolute maximum of 17 parts per million of these minerals.
Hard water is more common, but soft water is generally preferred, both for flavor and health reasons. High amounts of any mineral may be bad for you, although the effect would be extremely cumulative.
Soft water is also better for cleaning and bathing.
If you live in a hard water area but want soft water, then there are chemical systems and water softeners on the market which will remove these minerals.
To summarize, the taste of the resulting water entirely depends on the water in your area and the methods and products used to treat it.