Would you spend $3,000 on ‘alkaline water’?

By Greg Stevens on October 23rd, 2013

Most Kangen Water websites are crass and sleazy. Like late-night infomercials, they mix scientific jargon with vague and wild claims that their product does everything from freshen breath to cure cancer. They are commonly saturated with “personal testimonials” and run-on sentences with exclamation marks. One website that sells Kangen Water even auto-plays a video of an adorable kid who thanks you for visiting his dad’s website. Really.

Kangen Water sells machines that will “make your water alkaline”. The people who sell these machines, which usually cost in the region of $3,000 or more, usually know nothing about the product except what they have learned from company brochures and by doing research on the internet. This is part of the reason that many Kangen Water websites seem as though they have been created by first-year marketing majors.

This problem is not isolated to Kangen Water, however. This same amateurish marketing style is almost universally shared with other “alkaline water” and “alkaline diet” sites on the web. They use hype words like “miracle” and “astounding” to describe their own products. Hundreds of shill sites, purporting to be “informational only” and “to get at the real truth” are actually sponsored by people or companies that sell alkaline diet products, books, or seminars.

What is worse, many of them use blatantly misleading titles and search engine tomfoolery. A YouTube video entitled “Kangen Water myth EXPOSED on CBS News” is nothing more than an advertisement for Kangen water, littered with links to sales websites and tips about “financing options”. Multiple websites containing titles such as “Kangen Water Scam” and “Alkaline Water Snake-Oil” are nothing more than online marketing pamphlets run by people who are making money from the alkaline water business.

Poor marketing, trickery, vague and grandiose statements, emotional appeals and poor grammar should all be red flags to the conscientious consumer.

Of course, none of these things actually “prove” that the people who sell alkaline water machines and related products are big fat frauds. But anyone who is paying attention has to ask himself: if these products really do the amazing things they claim to, why the flash-and-bang, sleight-of-hand marketing techniques? Why not just sell your product in a department store?

A (tiny) bit of science

Before delving into the soap opera-like drama of the alkaline diet and water movement, it is worth indulging in a brief explanation of some of the basic science and terminology. This will make some of the claims and refutations that appear later clearer. Try to pay attention!

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(Marketing image for alkaline water incorrectly classifying sewage water as having a pH of 0)

Water is H2O, but in large quantities the molecule tends to “dissociate” slightly into separate pieces: a positively charged piece (H+) and a negatively charged piece (OH-). This doesn’t happen very much, though: the concentration of isolated H+ ions in pure water is 10 to the power of -7  moles per liter. This is considered “neutral”.

Some molecules naturally dissociate into positive and negative ions more strongly than water does. When the dissociation produces a higher concentration of H+ ions, the substance is called acidic. When the dissociation produces a lower concentration of H+ ions, the substance is called alkaline.

Tap water often has impurities dissolved in it, and these impurities can introduce additional hydrogen atoms into the solution and make it acidic. You can deliberately add certain substances, like calcium bicarbonate, that will reduce the concentration of hydrogen ions in water and make it alkaline. The “alkaline water machines”, such as the Kangen machine, use an electrical process to split water into pieces: the end result is acidic water with extra H+ ions dissolved in it, which is siphoned off as waste, and alkaline water with extra OH- ions in it, which you are then told to drink.

If alkaline water machines really are the cure to tiredness, aches and pains, cancer and bad breath all at once, then why do they market themselves in the same manner as late-night psychic chat lines?

Acidity and alkalinity are usually measured with a scale called pH (potential hydrogen), which is defined as the negative log of the concentration of hydrogen ions. That is why the pH of pure water is 7, with lower pH values indicating acidic solutions and higher pH indicating alkaline solutions.

All of this is important to keep in mind when reading articles on the web, which will confusingly and interchangeably use terms like “pH diet”, “alkaline diet”, and “acid / alkaline diet”, and which will sometimes refer to alkaline water machines as “water ionizers”.

Enough science! It is time to return to the question at hand. If alkaline water machines really are the cure to tiredness, aches and pains, cancer and bad breath all at once, then why do they market themselves in the same manner as late-night psychic chat lines? Why sell their product through a pyramid scheme? Why can’t they simply lay out the evidence, and at least make an attempt to appear respectable?

The trail of bodies

To understand how alkaline water advocates ended up painting themselves into the absurd corner they exist in today, one has to look at the way that the arguments of “alkaline diet” advocates have evolved over time.

Theory 1: Alkaline water makes your blood alkaline

The earliest proponents of the “alkaline diet” made a fairly straightforward claim: People eat a lot of very acidic food. This acid goes into the stomach, passes into the blood, and travels to our cells. Having acidic blood and cells causes all kinds of health problems. Thus, if we change our diet to be more alkaline, it will bring the acid levels of our body back into balance, and cure us of all kinds of diseases and problems.

Other theories about disease and aging began to immediately attach themselves to this basic argument about alkaline diet. For example, it is known that cancer sometimes leads to acidosis (acidic blood) and cancer cells cannot survive in alkaline cellular environments. Based on this, some people concluded that an alkaline diet, by making the blood and cells more alkaline, could cure cancer.

Similarly, some people have observed that many people’s average body pH gets slightly more acidic as they age. Based on this, some people concluded that an alkaline diet, by making the blood and cells more alkaline, can combat aging.

None of these claims had any experimental evidence. There were no controlled studies, and there was no experimental verification. There has literally never been any actual science behind the claim that taking in alkaline water and food kills cancer or combats aging.

Instead, customers are treated with a couple of feel-good stories about people who claim to have been cured, and are presented with the power of a “reasonable-sounding argument”.

Never underestimate the power of a “reasonable-sounding argument”, especially on people who are not scientists. Common sense says that “balance is good”, and people who have an affinity for “Eastern” and non-standard medicines have an almost compulsive obsession with the idea of “balance”. If we eat acidic foods, then alkaline food and water will bring us back into “balance”, so it must be healthy.

This argument, unfortunately, is fundamentally wrong in a way that is easy even for non-doctors and non-scientists to understand. The pH of food and water that you take into your body simply does not pass through into your bloodstream. The stomach is an extremely acidic environment, so even if you eat alkaline food it will become acidic as soon as it gets to your stomach. Then it passes into your intestines, where the mixture is made alkaline by your body’s normal digestive processes. Only then is the food and water absorbed through the cell walls and mixed into the bloodstream.

Even people who have no medical background usually know that the stomach is extremely acidic. The idea that the pH of food, whether acidic or alkaline, could simply pass through and impact the pH of your blood and cells is counter to even basic knowledge of how digestion works.

Naturally, the internet has responded to these claims with an epic slap-down. From WebMD to armies of blogging scientists and doctors, all rose up to correct this childish and baffling misconception that was perpetrated by the “alkaline diet” advocates.

To quote from QuackWatch.org: “All foods that leave your stomach are acidic. Then they enter your intestines where secretions from your pancreas neutralize the stomach acids. So no matter what you eat, the food in stomach is acidic and the food in the intestines is alkaline.”

Thus the first theory of the health benefits of alkaline water was slain.

Theory 2: Alkaline water has to be neutralized, which indirectly makes your blood alkaline

The advocates of alkaline diets and alkaline water products were not so easily deterred, however. Sang Whang, who has written two books on how to reverse ageing through an alkaline diet, makes two claims that are quoted on a number of websites that sell alkaline water machines.

First, he claims that if you drink water on an empty stomach, it might pass directly through the stomach and the small intestines and into the blood. Therefore, if you drink alkaline water on an empty stomach, it could make your blood alkaline.

Second, he claims that when you eat alkaline food, the process that the stomach uses to make that food more acidic results in the production of an alkaline by-product, which goes into the bloodstream. Specifically, his argument is that the more alkaline food and water you consume, the more hydrochloric acid the body has to produce in order to counteract it. This process produces sodium bicarbonate as a by-product, which is then released into the bloodstream, making your blood more alkaline.

Unfortunately, Sang Whang, who received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, is wrong. More specifically, he is wrong about the idea that things that you eat and drink can change the pH of your blood.

The actual pH of the blood is extremely regulated by the body, and is constantly maintained within a very narrow range. The by-products of the chemical reactions involved digestion can change the pH of urine, but never change the pH of blood. In fact, most first year medical students know that if the pH of your actual blood changes outside of a very, very narrow range, you get sepsis and end up in intensive care in the hospital, or you quite simply die.

Once again, an entire strike-force of web pages debunking this claim rose up on the internet. Over and over, from blogs to official medical research sites, you can find this simple explanation: alkaline water is quackery and has no medical effects, because the pH of blood is not affected by what you eat or drink.

Thus the second theory of the health benefits of alkaline water was put to sleep.

Theory 3: Alkaline water does not make your blood alkaline, but does other things.

Did the alkaline diet and alkaline water industry then crumble? Well, no.

Paul Doran, who is the president of a company that makes and sells alkaline machines, describes an entirely different process through which alkaline diet and water work their health-related miracles.

Paul Doran acknowledges that blood pH does not change. However, he argues that the blood still must transport the chemical by-products of acidifying processes to our cells and connective tissues. Acidifying chemical processes must react with alkaline molecules, usually minerals, in order to maintain the pH balance within the blood and the cells. As a result, when acidifying foods force our body’s regulation systems to neutralize a great deal of acid, it results in a depletion of minerals from the body, which leads to all kinds of health problems.

According to this view, not just acidic foods but also foods that lead to acidifying processes are a great risk to your health. When you take in more protein than your body needs, the excess amino acids are converted to organic acids that would acidify your blood. Because your body will not allow your blood to become acidic, calcium leaves your bones to neutralize the acid and prevent any change in pH. Because of this, the argument goes, eating too much acid-causing food may lead to osteoporosis.

As of the writing of this article, based on a the reading of a number of peer-reviewed articles and interviews with a number of doctors and biochemists, it appears as though this argument might not be complete and utter bullshit.

However, there are two important things to note. First, none of these claims have actually been demonstrated clinically or in experimental conditions. There is no real scientific data that can stand as evidence that the build up of acidic waste leads to illness. Many websites that sell alkaline water machines contain this sentence: “It is well known in the medical community that an overly acidic body is the root of many common diseases, such as obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood-pressure and more…” This is an outright lie.

In fact, even the hypothesis that organic acids lead to the osteoporosis seems to be in question, since recent research suggests that the kidneys, not the bones, are responsible for producing the bicarbonate ions that buffer acidity in the blood to maintain its pH balance. So although swarms of alkaline diet enthusiasts will retort that “science hasn’t proven that it’s not true!”, the fact remains that there is no actual scientific evidence that it is true.

Second, even if these claims are true, notice that in the latest version of the “alkaline diet explanation” the purported health benefits have been markedly downgraded from those that appeared in the beginning. Instead of alkaline water itself being the magical cure for everything from bad breath to cancer, we have the following.

An alkaline diet, in combination with being very hydrated and consuming mineral-rich foods, might prevent the gradual depletion of minerals from your organs as you get older. It might even slow or prevent the onset of osteoporosis in your old age.

Theory Z: What will be next?

The supposed explanations for why alkaline water is good for you have been lined up one by one, and shot down by actual medical facts. It has been a bloody trail of bodies that has lead us to this point. Only the most recent theory is left standing, and to be honest we don’t know how long that will last.

From a practical standpoint, this has left the casual onlooker who does research on the internet in a completely hopeless situation. Although the arguments and counter-arguments have evolved over time, all of the websites are still out there.

Today you can still find websites praising the fact that an alkaline diet will change the pH of your blood, just as you will find websites saying that alkaline diets are quackery because the pH of blood never changes, just as you will find websites saying that alkaline diets do not change the pH of your blood but will make you healthier for other reasons, and on and on.

It has become a jungle of outdated assertions and incorrect facts. Add to this ecosystem the fact that companies like Kangen Water are pyramid schemes (sorry, “multi-level marketing operations”), and the end result is an amateurish explosion of extremely enthusiastic promotional websites created by people who have no real idea what they are talking about.

Blind leading the blind

Most alkaline water enthusiasts are not evil people trying to rip you off. They are not especially stupid people, either. They are, however, somewhat credulous. They are often people who have a desperate or obsessive need to find the “next big secret” in health, and they frequently are drawn to “alternative medicine” because they do not for some reason trust mainstream doctors.

They also do not know how to think like scientists. They are convinced that a handful of testimonials of people who say they “feel better” after taking on an alkaline diet is proof that all of the medical claims made by alkaline diet advocates are true.

Indeed, comments section on one websites critical of the alkaline water fad are peppered with remarks such as this one: “You Gotta love intellectuals. They think they are always right and everybody else is wrong! Why don’t you use the product first before misleading everyone. How else would you explain the improved health of so many people who have drank alkaline ionized water!”

The most common sentiment expressed by alkaline water enthusiasts is summed up well by this comment let on a YouTube video attempting to debunk alkaline water as junk science: “I just like alkaline water. I have lost weight, and I feel better. How can you argue with that?”

How, indeed?

In reality, an alkaline diet – which involves cutting down on processed food, eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, and keeping away from large doses of sugars and starches – is a generally healthy way to eat. If you transition from a breakfast of poptarts and mimosas to a breakfast of wholegrain cereal with sliced fruit, you will indeed feel better. But the reason has nothing to do with alkalinity or pH.

Similarly, when people spend $3,000 on a Kangen water machine, they are given an entire set of lifestyle instructions, which includes tips on everything from how to eat more healthily and how to make sure you drink enough water in the day. It is truly no wonder that these people “feel better” after making these lifestyle changes, but it is not “evidence” that has anything to do with the alkalinity of the water that they are drinking.

how-kangen-water-is-produced

I wrote to Carlos Caridad, the owner of a website selling alkaline water entitled“Kangen water – Alkaline Water”, and I asked him specifically about this question. How do you know that the supposed health benefits that so many people claim after drinking Kangen water aren’t simply the result of better hydration in general? How do you know that it has anything to do with the water being alkaline?

This is what he wrote back in reply: “Greg, you are right! Most people do not drink enough water. When they are introduced to alkaline water the suggestion is to drink at least 4 – 16 oz of alkaline water a day to feel the benefits of it. Yes these people start drinking water on the level they should have done always!”

I talked with him about what he felt the benefits of drinking alkaline water were. He repeated many of the same claims that can be found everywhere on the web, such as the claim that it raises the body’s pH (which is false) and that it is easier to absorb into cells (which might be true but has not been proven).

However, after repeating these standard brochure-like claims, he concluded with an interesting and very honest sentiment:

“There is another very important factor that is overlooked by most people. When you start feeling better, stronger, more alert, your mind clear and overall healthier, you badly want to keep it at any cost! The experience of getting healthier by drinking alkaline water makes you change your life style dramatically: You start incorporating alkaline organic foods food, rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, amino acids and enzymes. You also incorporate more fresh foods like non cooked fruited [sic] and green vegetables, rich on the just mentioned nutrients that were not present in the foods you eat before. You also start taking care of your body exercising, talking walks or hikes breathing good air and giving your body the rest it needs! Going to sleep earlier and sleeping enough hours.

None of that would happen if you just increased the same amount of regular acidic water you were drinking before!”

This is a fundamentally psychological argument that has nothing to do with alkalinity per se; nonetheless, it is profoundly true. Regrettably, this argument gets buried under the junkpile of false medical claims on the internet.

Perhaps it would be better for everyone, and more honest, if the manufacturers and distributors of Kangen water machines advertised with a large banner that said simply: “Spend $3,000 on a machine that makes water, and you’ll feel so guilty that you’ll eat healthier, too.”

It is likely that there will be very little scientific controversy about that.