Beyond differences between things like hard water and soft water; clear water and water with other things in it, most people would probably say that water is the taste of nothing- a flavor that is exactly neutral.
After all, we’re made mostly of water, aren’t we? If water had a flavor we’d be able to taste ourselves.
It’s not quite so simple. Humans are mammals, and all mammals are required to seek and drink from sources of water in order to remain hydrated. This means that there is a biological imperative to be able to determine the taste of 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 running research on how brain activity responded to various taste stimuli have had some results which may surprise you: Water is sour.
If your first response to this was something along the lines of “What on Earth?”, then keep reading. All will be explained.
Where Does Water Get Its Taste?
A part of the brain called the hypothalamus deals with 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 a liquid which is alkaline.
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 or 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 in order to quickly replace the saliva which was lost.
This reaction leaves behind excess protons, which have a positive charge.
Positively-charged substances are acidic, which, as you 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 has a complex partnership with smell and many other factors.
If you are drinking water and experiencing any noticeable 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.
This water runs to your home from a centralized water supply, and is managed by a municipal body. In wealthier parts of the world, tap water is even drinkable- 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. The nature of the water supply, such as the age of the system or the material of the pipe, can also affect taste.
This is bottled from a natural source of freshwater, typically in the 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 taste depending on where it is sourced.
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.
This comes in many forms, but is essentially a bottled mineral water which has been carbonated. The mineral content combine with the acidic flavor of CO2 and fizzy bubbles to give sparkling water a distinct, bitter taste.
It is often combined with fruit flavors or sweeteners to make it a more palatable product.
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’.
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, or bacteria and parasites.
The water vapour is the collected, and drunk as 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.
Hard Water Vs. Soft Water
Hard water refers to water which has a high amount of calcium and magnesium in it- more than 120 part 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 is bad for you, although the effect would be extremely cumulative.
If you live in a hard water area but want soft water, then there are chemical systems and water filters on the market which will remove these minerals. The taste of the resulting water entirely depends on the method and/or product used.