A brief history of bottled water

From ancient times on, people have travelled like pilgrims to enjoy the perceived health benefits of certain springs, hot and cold, bathing in it or drinking it. Some were so delighted by the effects that they bottled the water to take it home with them. Only in the 19th century did this bottling become a more concerted commercial enterprise, with French and Italian companies in particular exporting their product across borders.

The early success of bottled mineral water mirrored the scarcity of reliable clean water, especially in the burgeoning towns and cities, and bottled water went out of fashion when clean tap water was consistently piped into homes, from the late 19th century on. The soft-drinks industry then took off and bottled mineral water went into the doldrums, but it revived in the more health-conscious 1970s, on the back of a massive and highly successful publicity campaign by Perrier.

Initially the bottlers concentrated on supplying the restaurant trade, but soon the supermarkets recognised a general public demand. This was largely met by imported mineral water, until British entrepreneurs saw the potential for exploiting local sources. Now there are 149 UK brands of mineral water, supplying a thirsty market that buys 2.1 billion litres of bottled water every year.

Bottled water is a worldwide phenomenon: an estimated 154 billion litres of it are consumed annually, in a global market worth £100 billion. (Only a relatively small proportion of this bottled water is high-grade Natural Mineral Water, however.)

There is not much that is romantic about this industry: it is highly industrialised, with multinationals competing for market share. Evian, Volvic and Badoit, for instance, are owned by the giant French food group Danone; Buxton, Vittel and Perrier are owned by Nestlé; Malvern Water is owned by Coca-Cola.

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