Would you buy bottled water if you knew it was the same water that comes out of your tap?
According to the Canadian Bottled Water Association (CBWA), the majority of the country's bottled water supply comes from "protected underground sources," with less than five per cent coming from municipal sources – meaning tap water. But some experts say they think that number is much higher.
Bottled water companies are not required to disclose the source of their water to Canadian consumers, explains Dr. Stuart Smyth, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan.
"As long as the tap water is safe, the federal regulations don't play a role in the identification of the source," he explains. "To change this, it would require the companies in the water industry to get together and develop a code of best practices or industry standards."
According to Dr. Smyth, identification of a geographic location is required only if a company is selling spring water. "Other than this, there is no requirement to identify the source, unless it is used as part of the marketing strategy," says Dr. Smyth.
Indeed, a close look at the most popular brands of non-spring bottled water reveals that while some labels state they come from "public water sources" (in very fine print), others do not state the water source at all.
Whether it's marketing or convenience, bottled water is a $2.5-billion industry in Canada – and consumption is on the rise. According to Statistics Canada in 2015, 19 per cent of Canadian households said bottled water was their primary source of drinking water.
But it's unclear if these consumers of bottled water would pay $1.50 – $2.50 if they knew they were getting treated tap water in a bottle.
In Canada, bottled water is regulated through Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). "Canadian food and beverage companies do a very good job of complying with those regulations," notes Dr. Smyth.
But regulations can only go so far, he says.
Labels on bottled water in Canada have to display how the water is treated, including whether or not the water contains fluoride, as well as listing any additives to the water. According to the CFIA: "Prepackaged water can come from a variety of sources including springs, aquifers, or municipal supplies and may be treated to make it fit for people to drink."
While mineral and spring water may not undergo any treatment that changes the water's composition, the government body adds, bottled mineral and spring water must specify the mineral salt content. Water that has had the bulk of its minerals filtered out must be labelled 'demineralized.' "Where it becomes a little more grey is when we get into what food and beverage companies perceive as valuable, meaning what information they can add to the label," says Dr. Smyth. He recently filed a complaint with the CFIA about a bottled water company that labelled its product as "gluten-free" – something water is naturally.
Dr. Smyth notes that while water from Canadian taps is generally safe, consumers should be aware of a bottled water product's source and then be able to make the purchasing decision on their own.
Echoing these sentiments is Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and water advocate.
"When you're paying 200 per cent [more] for a bottle of water and you're paying for tap water, you really have the right to know that it's properly labelled and what you're getting," she says.
Ms. Barlow says she's confident that more than just 5 per cent of bottled water companies are using treated tap water as their source.
She notes that in the past, some U.S. bottled water manufacturers have come under fire for not being truthful about the source of their water. In 2007, after years of pressure from advocacy groups, one of the top-selling bottled water brands in the world was forced to change their labels to show their product was tap water.
"They've done a better job in the U.S. of forcing this issue out into the open," says Ms. Barlow. "We need to have much higher labelling rules here about where the water really comes from."
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Edge Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.