What is 'raw water,' and why is it trending?

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published May 3, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Drinking untreated, unfiltered “raw water” is a new trend.

  • Enthusiasts claim the product is more natural, implying that it is healthier, too.

  • Food safety experts warn against the trend, pointing to a spectrum of health risks that can come from drinking untreated and potentially contaminated water.

Some people are drinking “raw water” as part of a new healthy living trend.[] But food safety experts warn doing so could have the opposite effect, as reported by the New York Times. Also known as “live” or “unprocessed” water, the trend involves drinking water that has not undergone any treatment processes. 

“The idea that everything that's natural is good for you is a misnomer,” says Dr. Vanessa R. Coffman, PhD, program director at the nonprofit Stop Foodborne Illness. “Just because something is natural doesn't mean that it's beneficial to your body. There's a lot of dangerous pathogens out there that occur in the environment naturally.”

Natural isn't always better

Untreated water can vary in risk profile based on location and ecosystem. For example, a stream bordering a farm could be highly vulnerable to animal feces or runoff from crops, increasing its risk profile.[]

A natural spring away from agriculture or industrial areas may be less risky, as spring water goes through a natural purification process by trickling through layers of soil underground.[] However, this does not make spring water risk-free, says Coffman. 

Most companies in the raw or live water market appear to sell spring water. “There's always the possibility that something can be safe,” says Coffman. “The risks, however, are there.”

And, according to Coffman, they’re not worth it. At the more serious end of the spectrum, risks can land people in the hospital—or worse.

"It's not just an upset tummy. These [risks] can be life-altering and deadly."

Vanessa R. Coffman, PhD, program director at the nonprofit Stop Foodborne Illness

Untreated water comes with a high price and risk profile What raw water lacks in treatment, it makes up for in cost. Alive Waters, one company that markets untreated spring water, sells it for $19 to $33 per 2.5 gallon “jug” in parts of Florida, Texas, and California—the latter of which has a 1- to 2-week waitlist for new customers, according to a product page on its website.[]

Why is there so much demand? Raw water companies and enthusiasts claim that these products are rich in naturally occurring minerals and contain “zero traces of industrial age contamination,” according to the Alive Waters site.

Treated water, however, can also contain healthy minerals, and is widely available around the globe. As such, pricier options shine a spotlight on health disparities and personal choice.

“There are many agencies around the world who’ve spent billions of dollars trying to get people access to clean, safe drinking water, and they're doing that so that we can get rid of these really dangerous pathogens that can ultimately take your life,” says Coffman.

"Treated water has been one of the crowning achievements of public health around the world—and we shouldn't forget that."

Vanessa R. Coffman, PhD, program director at the nonprofit Stop Foodborne Illness

Denise Calvert, PhT, a licensed pharmaceutical analyst and medication consultant recognized by the Texas and Kentucky State Boards of Pharmacy, adds that it shouldn’t be lost on people that untreated water has led to waterborne illness outbreaks in the United States. One such example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. 

“People and doctors should be aware of the potential health risks of drinking raw, unfiltered water, even in first-world countries,” says Calvert. “In addition to microbiological contaminants, untreated water sources may also contain chemical contaminants like pesticides, fertilizers, and heavy metals, which can cause long-term health problems like cancer and neurological disorders.”

EPA and FDA guidelines for drinking water

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both set standards for safe drinking water—including limits on dangerous pathogens in tap and bottled water—but do not require specific treatments to meet these limits.[]

“They don't care necessarily how you get there but that you do get there,” says Coffman.

Alive Water says that it meets safety standards, and the company posts its water quality reviews online.

From a risk-benefit perspective, raw water isn’t worth it

Coffman urges extreme caution around consuming untreated water and encourages doctors to educate patients who participate in the trend on potential risks. This is particularly crucial for vulnerable individuals, pregnant people, and children, she adds.

For doctors engaging in conversations with patients about drinking raw water, Coffman suggests approaching patients with “compassion and an open ear,” while also providing them with facts and resources about the risks at play.

“These conversations can be difficult, but they're important,” says Coffman.

What this means for you

Some people are drinking untreated water for purported natural health benefits. Food safety experts warn, however, that just because some thing is natural, it is not necessarily good for health, and that water treatment processes exist for a reason: to keep people safe.

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