In 2013, Li was diagnosed with a salivary gland tumor, which ultimately required her to change her dietary habits completely—water intake included. As a result, the avid water drinker (even before her expert-level certification) began to pay closer attention to not only how much water she was consuming but also which kinds.
“Before becoming a water sommelier, I never really paid attention to which type of water I drank, but through research, I’ve learned that how we hydrate ourselves is equally important,” Li says. After speaking with her, the answer was clear (pun intended) on which type of water is her number one choice: natural mineral water. More ahead on why this is a sommelier's drink of choice.
Why drinking high-quality water is important
According to Li, water is integral to just about every bodily function. “Our body is comprised of 75 percent water. All the food we consume needs water to carry those nutrients to different parts of the body. What’s more, our body has trillions of cells, which are made up of 90.5 percent water, too. By understanding that logic, the importance of water becomes even more apparent,” Li says. And as we age, we tend to get more and more chronically dehydrated, meaning that the quality of the water we consume becomes even more imperative. Li compares proper hydration to a plant’s need for water to grow or the requirement for the correct type of water for a fish tank to ensure the animals survive: It’s dire.
While studying in Germany, Li quickly realized that the way water is processed in Europe is very different from how it's done stateside. “In Europe, they have very strict regulations about what water products can be called or labeled. For example, natural mineral water can only be called natural mineral water when it’s been sourced, harvested, and bottled properly,” Li says, which helps folks know exactly what they’re buying at the store. This is especially important when distinguishing types of water from one another.
According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), drinking water devoid of natural minerals, demineralized (water free of minerals by way of purification), or remineralized (water with added minerals) for a long period will have a negative impact on the body’s ability to absorb minerals or potentially lead to chronic illness.
The issue? Distinguishing natural mineral water—meaning it contains naturally-occurring minerals that are bonded to water molecules—from remineralized forms can be difficult. “Labels should include a list of the types of minerals in the water. By contrast, this rarely is the case in the United States and Canada; we don’t often find this type of educational information labeled,” Li says.
To that point, Li notes that North America's top three bottled water brands are not natural mineral water sources. "These popular water brands—Aquafina, Dasani, and Smartwater—fall into a different category of water I call 'processed water,' which lack the robust mineral content of natural mineral water sources. This is because the number one priority when it comes to our hydration is that the water is clean and safe to drink. But when you delve into the world of water a little deeper, we begin to ask ourselves: How can we also achieve more effective hydration?,” Li says.
In addition to this, Li explains that it’s important to look into these brands' sustainability and harvesting methods with a critical eye. “Due to the industrial revolution, many of our natural water sources—like streams from mountains and rivers—have become heavily polluted. As such, we need to be wiser about the type of water we drink,” Li says. For maximum hydration, she says it’s important to find water sources free of contamination, such as natural mineral water, which is conscientiously harvested and used in brands like Clearly Canadian, a brand Li has partnered with due to its high-quality and ethically-sourced products.
How does a water sommelier shop for water?
First and foremost, Li says the best type of water is one that satisfies three important categories:
First, it should be clean, safe, and natural. “When we make more cautious choices about the type of water we consume, it’ll help benefit the next generations to come. We should all be making wise hydration choices for the future of our planet," Li says.
"When we make more cautious choices about the type of water we consume, it’ll help benefit the next generations to come. We should all be making wise hydration choices for the future of our planet," Li says.
When at the store, Li also tries to avoid products that are “purified,” as they won’t contain the hydration-boosting minerals found in natural mineral water. Some goes with distilled water.
Additionally, Li notes there’s been tons of buzz around alkaline water—with a neutral pH level of about seven—and its assumed benefits. That said, she reiterates what’s more important is how that alkalinity is achieved in the first place, aka how processed the source is. “Natural mineral water should be alkaline due to its mineral content. Conversely, when you add minerals to purified water, you’ll also achieve alkaline water, but it’s been far more processed,” Li says.
Aside from these factors, Li also emphasizes another major responsibility for a water sommelier: Sourcing water that actually tastes good. When assessing water purely on flavor, she’ll look for qualities like: How much pleasure it’ll bring to a dining experience? How will this water make our day-to-day water consumption and hydration more fun? How does this type of water pair with a certain kind of food?
“For a water sommelier, we find that the different mineral content will give you a very different taste and sensation on the palate,” Li says. That said, she notes that the best water is the one that’s available—especially if you’re very dehydrated or parched.
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