Ionised water = The new snake oil

During Chinese New Year, my family and I went back to Malaysia to visit my relatives. We visited one of my aunts had undergone surgery to remove a small cancerous growth. Besides ensuring us that she would make a complete recovery soon, my aunt also told her plan of improving her health. Part of that plan involved the purchase of a water-ionizer machine. When we asked her what was the function of the water-ionizer, my aunt told us that she purchased the machine after seeing it on a television advertisement. The advertisement claimed that when the body becomes “too acidic”, it encourages the growth of cancer cells and other diseases such as obesity. The solution to this problem would be the water-ionizer. The advertisement claimed that the water-ionizer would ionize drinking water using electrolysis, producing “alkaline water” and “acidic water”. By drinking the alkaline water, the advertisement claims that the alkalinity would reduce the acidity of the body. The advertisement also claimed that the water acts as an anti-oxidant. (Snyder et al., 2008)

Convinced by my aunt, my parents bought a water-ionizer to ring back to Shanghai. At first, I myself had no doubts about the “benefits” of the water-ionizer. When we started our unit on acids and bases, I decided to see if the water-ionizer was really beneficial. To my dismay, the many claims that the water-ionizer company made were scientifically wrong.

Many water-ionization companies claim that by drinking alkaline water, it will neutralize the acidity of the body. Firstly, the intake of alkaline water does not affect the ph of the body. If alkaline water is drunk, the acids in the stomach will neutralize the basic nature of the alkaline water. The body has its own system of regulating the ph levels of the various parts of the body, such as blood and urine. For example, in the blood, the bicarbonate buffering system keep’s the blood’s ph at a constant level.

CO2 (g) + H20 (l) <=> H2CO3 (aq) <=> H+ (aq) + HCO3- (aq) (Frey et al., 2008)

The CO2 in the blood , when mixed with water, produces carbonic acid. The carbonic acid in turn can disintegrate into hydrogen ions and the basic bicarbonate. Hence, drinking alkaline water has no effect in changing the body’s ph level.

“Ionized water” is a misleading term. In chemistry, pure water has a neutral ph of 7, meaning that there are no ions in pure water. Water that is not pure water, such as rainwater, is already ionic, since they contain ions present in it, such as Sodium. Therefore, the term “ionized water” does not describe anything.

Secondly, the water-ionizer is supposed to turn water into alkaline water by “ionizing” the water through electrolysis. However, significant electrolysis cannot occur in pure water due to the lack of ions. The water-ionizer is a machine with 2 metal plates that are normally made out of inert metals such as stainless steel, separated by a membrane. They serve as electrodes, which are electrical conductors that conduct electricity to a non-metallic part of a circuit, in this case, the water. When connected to the power source, one of the plates becomes negatively charged while the other becomes positively charged. (Lower et al., 2008)

The negatively charged plate releases electrons. Hydrogen ions than bond to these electrons to produce hydrogen gas and OH-

2 H2O(l) + 2e → H2(g) + 2 OH(aq)

Based on Bronsted-lowry theory, the excess OH- ions make that side of the machine alkaline.

and the positively charged plate, oxidation takes place, producing oxygen gas.

2 H2O(l) → O2(g) + 4 H+(aq) + 4e-

Based on Bronsted-lowry theory, the excess H+ ions make that side of the machine acidic.

However, the H+ and OH- ions eventually recombine to form water, and the final equation reveals that the final product is hydrogen and oxygen gas, which does not affect ph.

2 H2O(l) → 2 H2(g) + O2(g)

Therefore, significant electrolysis can only occur when the water is ionic. However, most tap water is alkaline in order to prevent the disintegration of water pipes. Slightly acidic water, such as water from mountain glaciers and streams, is safe to drink. (Dunning et al., 2009)

Lastly, I also found out that the claim that cancer cells grow better in acidic environment is actually a misinterpretation of the fact that cancer cells release acids.  (Mathani et al., 2010)

So, what were the implications of this research? I believed that this research was very important. By understanding the complete process of the electrolysis of water, I was able to see that the water-ionizer’s claim of being able to raise the ph of pure water was false. I was also able to realise that the misuse of Bronstend-Lewis law could be used as convincing ways to trick people. Most importantly, this research shows that many health products will not only misinterpret and misuse scientific data to give their claims false credibility. This research also highlights the practicality of studying chemistry, since a basic understanding of chemistry can helps us deduce whether these claims are false. In conclusion, I feel that this research warned me to guard myself against false scientific claims and to apply my previous knowledge in chemistry to real world settings.

References:

Dunning, B. (2009). Kangen Water: Change Your Water, Change Your Life. Skeptoid: Critical Analysis Podcast. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4139

Lower, S. (2012, November 20). “Ionized” and alkaline water: snake oil on tap. “Ionized” and alkaline water. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from http://www.chem1.com/CQ/ionbunk.html

Mahtani, R. L. (2010, August 15). Acid Balance in the Body and Cancer – Caring4Cancer. caring4cancer. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from https://www.caring4cancer.com/go/cancer/nutrition/questions/acid-balance-in-the-body-and-cancer.htm

Snyderhealth (n.d.). cannotParse. snyderhealth. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from http://www.snyderhealth.com/water_ionizers/how_does_a_water_ionizer_work.html

University of Washington (n.d.). pH Buffers in the Blood. Department of Chemistry | Washington University in St. Louis. Retrieved March 14, 2013, from http://www.chemistry.wustl.edu/~edudev/LabTutorials/Buf

One thought on “Ionised water = The new snake oil

  1. Reading Nicholas’s post made me think back to another similar product that seemed to sweep people off their feet and make them believe that it was associated with health benefits – coconut water. Something I have always enjoyed drinking when I was living in the US, coconut water has always struck me as a delicious and refreshing beverage especially when combined with the numerous nutrients it brings upon consumption. The coconut water craze hit the US market in around 2005, with manufacturing companies bringing a South Asian tropical specialty to the rest of the world in convenient Tetra-Paks and plastic bottles (Yin, 2010). What didn’t surprise me at all, however, was the fact that yet another new food product was accommodated by a flood of manufacturer claims regarding its health benefits and its “life-enhancing” properties (Yin, 2010). So after thinking about Nick’s post, I took the advantage of being able to connect the topic of coconut water to his topic regarding the extent to which science is used to justify claims about a particular commodity, and set out to research the validity of some of these claims myself.

    The first thing I discovered was that one of manufacturers’ biggest claims on the benefits of coconut water, besides the fact that it can hydrate the body better than plain water can, was that it was helpful to athletes and post-workout recovery because of its high levels of the electrolyte potassium. (Yin, 2010) In fact, it is marketed by some companies as a “natural sports drink.” (Karriem-Norwood, 2012) To give credibility to their claim, manufacturers rely heavily on the scientific fact that potassium is an important electrolyte, which is “a mineral that dissolves in water and carries an electrical charge,” for the proper balance of your blood pressure and heart beat. Electrolytes help the body maintain a desirable amount of water, carry nerve impulses throughout the nervous system, and control the contractionary and expansionary movements of the muscles. (McVitamins) They also serve as part of the body’s “own system of regulating the pH levels of…blood,” as Nicholas’s post suggested. Because of its ionic charge, K+ has the ability to carry nutrients such as glucose into our cells and waste products out of our cells. During exercise, especially high intensity aerobic exercise, the potassium K+ concentration has been proven to increase steadily from the “electrical activity in the exercising muscles,” and then become nearly eliminated from the bloodstream at the end of the workout. (Medbo & Sejersted, 1990) It exits the body and is lost through sweat and urine. (Christrianson, 1999) As numerous sources indicate, the loss of water combined with the loss of electrolytes can yield painful, tight muscle cramps during or after exercise. (Sherwood, 2011) That is why potassium is considered such an essential component of replenishment when it comes to post-workout recovery, and thus manufacturers highlight the overwhelming amount of potassium in coconut water as a means of reliably extolling the benefits of their product.

    As a person who enjoys working out at the gym and finding the best methods to reduce muscle cramps, I became more and more convinced of the power of coconut water – perhaps the media wasn’t exaggerating their points because after all, there must be some grain of truth in what manufacturer’s say for them to mention it in the first place. From here, I shifted my perspective to a more tolerant view of the use of science in advertisement. That was when I realized that there was more the companies were claiming than I was originally aware of. In fact, not only has the media been making claims about the benefits of coconut water for athletes, but also for its potential to prevent cancer and cure diabetes! According to spokesperson Andrea Giancoi from the American Dietetic Association, “…that always ends up being the issue with some of the products – their actual health benefits get lost in the hype.” (Yin, 2010) Giancoi is referring to one of the greatest psychological tactics of the advertisement industry – their use of compliance techniques. In psychology class, as part of the sociocultural level of analysis, we learned that compliance techniques are “ways in which individuals are influenced to comply with the demands or desires of others.” (Crane & Hannibal, 2009) One of the techniques associated with the promotion of coconut water is called the “foot-in-the-door technique,” which entails manufacturers asking consumers to agree to do one small thing in an attempt to increase their compliance for a later larger request. In context, this means that the coconut water manufacturers will first convince consumers to believe that their product is “amazing” because it has such high levels of potassium and is beneficial to keeping our body’s blood levels regulated. Then, they take their arguments to the next level by encouraging consumers to believe that because of this one health benefit, there are greater benefits that stem from the product – so much greater that a possible cure for diabetes and prevention source for cancer are associated with the consumption of their product! To me, this seemed a bit outrageous, especially when I knew that I had fallen into the psychological trap.

    Nonetheless, I could not resist further investigation into the actual benefits of coconut water and whether it truly had so great an impact as indicated by its producers. I came across the Coconut Research Center’s website, a non-profit organization aimed at providing accurate, factual information about the true benefits of coconut products. In a newsletter about coconut water, Doctor Bruce Fife explains that there is actual scientific evidence to back up some claims about coconut water. Specifically, he says that coconut water “helps dilate the blood vessels, improves blood flow, and reduces plaque formation” for diabetics who suffer from poor blood circulation. In addition, the abundant presence in coconut water of the plant hormones cytokinins, which “regulate growth, development, and aging,” seem to play a role in controlling the division of cells, which if left uncontrolled, can contribute to tumors that form the basis of cancer. (Fife, 2012) So, after digging around, I found out that there was some validity in what suppliers claimed.

    After a horde of conflicting discoveries about coconut water and the reliability of manufacturers’ scientific claims, I realized one important implication. The advertising industry is far too driven by sensationalism and the desire to attract consumers to the table – so much that the supporting science and actually valid claims for a product are, as Giancoi says, “lost in the hype.” (Yin, 2010) From this, we see how companies and advertisers have a tendency to oversimplify scientific content (that may actually be true) simply to draw attention and sell their products. They don’t take the time to present the full research in plain sight (I had to scrounge around for more extensive research); rather, they simply use psychological strategies such as the foot-in-the-door technique to entice potential buyers. In essence, the usefulness of chemistry and science to provide valuable insight into the truth of product claims is very evident through my research. Also, the realization I made regarding the somewhat incomplete nature of the scientific evidence presented by advertisers and product campaigns will undoubtedly help me “guard myself,” as Nick’s post so cleverly stated, against the possible falsity of the media and take what I see or hear with a grain of salt.

    Sources:

    Christianson, A. (1999). Essential nutrients for endurance athletes: 10 for the road. Nutrition Science News. Retrieved from http://www.chiro.org/nutrition/FULL/Essential_Nutrients_for_Endurance_Athletes.shtml

    Crane, J., & Hannibal, J. (2009). Psychology. (p. 116). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Fife, B. (2012). Coconut water: Dew from the heavens. Retrieved from http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/Coconut Water Dew from the Heavens.htm

    Karriem-Norwood, V. (2012, October 15). Coconut water: Supplement information from webmd. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/lifestyle-guide-11/supplement-guide-coconut-water

    McVitamins: A Health Information Site. (n.d.). Potassium. Retrieved from http://www.mcvitamins.com/Vitamins/potassium.htm

    Medbo, J. I., & Sejersted, O. M. (1990). Plasma potassium changes with high intensity exercise. Journal of Physiology, 421, 105-122. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1190075/

    Sherwood, C. (2011, June 30). Is potassium good for a workout?. Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/482519-is-potassium-good-for-a-workout/

    Yin, S. (2010, August 4). Coconut water: Myth or miracle?. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/03/coconut-water-myth-or-mir_n_669572.html

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