America’s Newest Fad the World’s Oldest: Water

NEW YORK (AP) -
Walter Pugh, 83, of Belzoni, Miss., loads a case of his bottled water into his shopping cart last Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Walter Pugh, 83, of Belzoni, Miss., loads a case of his bottled water into his shopping cart last Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

It wasn’t too long ago that America was all over soda. Now, an old favorite has the country’s heart.

As New York City grapples with the legality of a ban on the sale of large cups of soda and other sugary drinks at some businesses, one thing is clear: soda’s run as the nation’s beverage of choice has fizzled.

In its place? A favorite for much of history: Plain old H2O.

For more than two decades, soda was the No. 1 drink in the U.S. with consumption peaking in 1998 at 54 gallons a year, according industry tracker Beverage Digest. Americans drank just 42 gallons a year of water at the time.

But over the years, as soda increasingly came under fire for fueling the nation’s rising obesity rates, water quietly rose to knock it off the top spot.

Americans now drink an average of 44 gallons of soda a year, a 17 percent drop from the peak in 1998. Over the same time, the average amount of water people drink has increased 38 percent to about 58 gallons a year. Bottled water has led that growth, with consumption nearly doubling to 21 gallons a year.

The trend reflects Americans’ ever-changing tastes; it wasn’t too far back in history that tap water was the top drink. But in the 1980s, carbonated soft drinks overtook tap as the most popular drink, with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo putting their marketing muscle behind their colas with celebrity endorsements.

Americans kept drinking more of the carbonated, sugary drink for about a decade. Then, soda’s magic started to fade: Everyone from doctors to health advocates to government officials were blaming soft drinks for making people fat. Consumption started declining after hitting a high in the late 1990s.

At the same time, people started turning to bottled water as an alternative. Its popularity was helped by the emergence of single-serve bottles that were easy to carry around.

Until then, bottled water had mainly been sold in “big jugs and coolers” for people who didn’t trust their water supply.

The new soft drink-like packaging helped fast-track bottled water’s growth past milk and beer. In fact, the amount of bottled water Americans drink has risen nearly every year for more than two decades, while the estimates of how much tap water people drink has fluctuated up and down during that time. When taken together, water finally overtook soda in 2008, according to Beverage Digest.

Based on current trajectories, Michael Bellas, the CEO of the industry tracker Beverage Marketing Corp., predicts that bottled water alone could overtake soda within the next decade.

Currently, people drink 21 gallons of bottled water a year. That compares with 37 gallons of other water, which includes tap, sparkling, flavored and enhanced waters such as Coca-Cola’s vitamin water.

In the meantime, the chairman and former CEO of Nestle Waters North America, Kim Jeffery, is waiting for bottled water’s moment in the spotlight. Nestle, the Swiss company that makes Poland Spring, Nestle Pure Life, Deer Park and other brands, has nearly half of the share of the bottled water market.

“For thousands of years, water was beverage of choice for human beings,” he said. “Now we’re reverting back to that.”