Alkaline Water Systems: Change Your Water, Change Your Bank Balance
Today we're going to take a scientific look at one of the latest multilevel marketing fads: healing water machines, devices costing thousands of dollars claiming to ionize or alkalize your tap water, and claiming a dazzling range of health and medical benefits. Sold under such names as Kangen, Jupiter Science, KYK, and literally hundreds of others, these machines do either nothing or almost nothing (beyond basic water filtration), and none of what they may actually do has any plausible beneficial purpose. They are built around the central notion that regular water is so harmful to the body that their price tags, as much as $6,000, are actually justified. They are essentially water filters with some additional electronics to perform electrolysis. They are sold with volumes of technical sounding babble that may impress a non-scientific layperson, but to any chemist or medical doctor, they are laughably meaningless (and in many cases, outright wrong).
Here's a really quick coverage of the basics of the real science. The pH scale goes from about 0 to 14. 7 is neutral pH. Lower numbers are acidic, and higher numbers are alkaline. All aqueous solutions contain some dissociated water molecules in the form of positive hydrogen ions (H+) and negative hydroxide ions (OH-). When there are more hydroxide ions, it's because the solution contains positively charged metal ions like sodium, calcium or magnesium for those hydroxide ions to bind to, thus making the solution alkaline. Conversely, when there are more positive hydrogen ions, there needs to be some other negatively charged ions, usually bicarbonate (HCO3-) and the solution is thus acidic. Pure water has neither such chemicals in it, and so it has neutral pH. To electrolyze or ionize water, you must add some chemicals of one type or the other. For a more complete discussion of this, I recommend a web page by Stephen Lower, a chemist from Simon Fraser University.
Make no mistake about it: Ionizing and alkalizing water machines are a textbook example of inventing an imaginary problem that needs to be solved with expensive pseudoscientific hardware. It should come as no surprise that the most expensive of these machines are usually sold through multilevel marketing: A one-two punch that first takes advantage of a layperson's lack of scientific expertise to interest them in the product, and then takes advantage of their lack of business or mathematical expertise to convince them that they're virtually guaranteed to become a millionaire through a pyramid model.
The company making the most noise right now is Kangen. They use the slogan "Change your water - change your life." Google that phrase; 49 million results currently. It's a brilliant slogan; everyone would like to change their life for the better, wouldn't it be great if all it took was changing your water? I glance over some of these URLs: MyMiracleWater.com, VeryHealthyWater.com, WaterMiracles.com, AlkalineWaterMiracle.info — people selling easy answers to imaginary problems.
Let's look at the claims these sellers make. The successful MLM companies generally dodge government regulators by making no illegal claims themselves; instead, they allow those claims to be made by their independent distributors: First charging them big dollars for the privilege, and then burdening them with the risk of needing to make untrue health claims in order to recoup their foolish investment. So I've looked over a lot of these independent websites and come up with what they generally say are the reasons you need to buy their supposedly special water.
Water molecules in liquid water move about freely, there is no way that a hexagonal arrangement could be formed or made stable. Stephen Lower is one of many chemists who have debunked this completely made-up and chemically implausible claim. If you're interested in the details, read his excellent web page "Water Cluster Quackery". Hexagonal arrangements of liquid molecules are not a characteristic of ionization or of alkalinity. Such hexagonal arrangements in water have never been observed or plausibly theorized, and thus there is no way that it could have ever been established that such water is better absorbed by your body — since it doesn't exist. The human body has never had a problem being hydrated by water, so this particular claim is a perfect example of a pseudoscientific solution to an imaginary problem.
Pure water actually cannot be electrolyzed and dissociated into ions to any appreciable degree, it's not electrically conductive enough. You need to have a significant amount of minerals and impurities in order for it to be electrolyzed, which is why Kangen and its competitors also take your money for packets of mineral salt additives that you need to add to your water to make your machine do anything. Do this, and your water will become chemically alkaline with a cargo of dissolved metallic ions in solution. Basically, your $6,000 Kangen machine, when used with the provided chemicals, is a way to accomplish the same thing as making a weak Clorox bleach solution. To chemists, the term "ionized water" is meaningless.
Two scientific-sounding medical claims, both too vague to be testable. "Immune system boosting" is medically meaningless, which is something we'll delve into in greater depth in a future episode. Basically, you can't be healthier than healthy; and a healthy immune system is a delicate balance between attacking foreign bodies and attacking your own healthy tissue. "Boosting" it, if such were possible, would cause your own healthy tissue to be attacked. This is called an autoimmune diease, such as lupus. It's not something you want. Alkaline water has never been shown to have any such effect.
We've discussed the whole phenomenon of antioxidants before too, in Skeptoid #86 about antioxidant fruit juices. Although oxidation does contribute to some age-related diseases, consuming antioxidants does not affect normal aging. Even if they did, you wouldn't get them from alkalized water: When water is alkalized, it contains hypochlorites, which are oxidizing agents. Basically, the opposite of what is claimed.
This is absolutely false. Your body's acidity is not, in any way, affected by the pH of what you eat or drink. Eating alkaline food stimulates production of acidic digestive enzymes, and eating acidic foods causes the stomach to produce fewer acids. Your body's primary mechanism for the control of pH is the exhalation of carbon dioxide, which governs the amount of carbonic acid in the blood. Nor has there ever been any plausible research that shows any connection between these diseases and body acidity, this also appears to be completely made up. This is a classic case of using simplistic terminology to sell a product to the scientifically illiterate.
The dreaded mucoid plaque again! Mucoid plaque is an invention by the purveyors of colon cleansing products, it has never actually been observed in medical science. Since it doesn't exist, it's impossible to say whether it would be affected by an alkaline diet. Digestive enzymes neutralize the pH of whatever you eat by the time it gets to your bowels anyway, so it's hard to imagine what science might possibly support a claim such as this.
Fascinating. They also promote Kangen water to aquarium owners because of its amazing power to support bacteria. The fact is that some bacteria are affected by pH, and some are not. Most thrive in a particular range, but relatively few bacteria are affected by the small 1 or 2 point difference between tap water and water that has been treated with Kangen mineral salt additives. It could be argued that sellers are simply saying whatever they think their target market wants to hear.
The most common source of acidic water is the cleanest and most natural of all: normal rainwater, with a pH of about 5.6. Most tap water is within a point of 7, which is neutral, so your tap water is probably already more alkaline than clean rainwater. Are you still convinced that this is so dangerous that you need to drop two to six thousand dollars on a machine that any chemist or dietitian will tell you has no credible benefit?
There is one possible use for water if it could be made heavily alkaline, and that's to treat heartburn in the esophagus. But it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective as, for example, a single Tums tablet. However, water so treated would have to be so laden with salts that it would be virtually undrinkable. For more on this, see Skeptoid #128 for a discussion of treating gastric reflux.
Please, everyone: Before you invest money in a Kangen machine or any similar competitive machine, or in becoming a distributor for them, do two things. First, ask a chemist to review their scientific claims; and second, ask a doctor about the medical claims. Maybe you'll find that I'm wrong and the multilevel marketing people have discovered whole new branches of chemistry and medicine heretofore unknown to science. Or maybe you'll find that they're simply another spin-the-wheel-and-invent-a-new-age-pseudoscience trying to separate you from your money with fantastic technobabble and glamorous personal testimonials, and just maybe you'll save those thousands of dollars.
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