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Black(water) Market: Digging Up the Dirt about Slick Designer Beverages

Sounds Sciencey

Sharon Hill

April 2, 2012

The organic aisle in my supermarket is wide and full of products with spiffy packaging. I visit this section to browse all the varieties of fancy water, with new ones appearing every week.

On my regular stop to see the newest beverages one day, I noticed a slick, thin black bottle. The label read “Spring water enriched with Fulvic Acid.” Intrigued, I bought the 16.9 ounce bottle for $1.89.

Time for a Taste Test

After giving the water a day to chill, I poured. I was shocked to see that it was not the bottle that was black: it was the water that looked like flat cola. Because I knew the product was water, not coffee or cola, the color of the liquid was slightly off-putting. Most people associate the color black with dirt or being “dirty,” while the clearness of water has an aesthetic appeal, indicating purity. By coloring the water black, this manufacturer encourages consumers to visit “the dark side.”

I tasted. I had been expecting an earthy or metallic flavor, but the water had no noticeable taste. Had I been blindfolded, I would have said that it was plain old water. After some research, I have concluded that this product is no more than fancy colored mineral water.

Designer bottled water seems like a huge waste of money. Yet it has been around for years, marketed with a bucketful of hype and sold at a premium price.

I prefer my water run through a charcoal filter (for purity), direct from my tap. Municipal water suppliers undergo regular standard testing to ensure quality at all times. Laws enacted by individual states are decent insurance that the states’ water sources and processing systems prevent unhealthy levels of contaminants in their drinking water.

But the regulation of bottled water is not as straightforward. In the U.S., the Federal Food and Drug Administration regulates bottled water as a food product, not as a water supply. Under federal law, manufacturers of bottled water are responsible for creating a safe product for consumption.

The “Blackground”: Fulvic and Humic Acids

Black water was placed on shelves in 2011 by two manufacturers, Blackwater and, shortly thereafter, the blk. brand. (A lawsuit alleging that blk. stole the idea for black bottled water from Blackwater followed the release of the blk. product.) A third brand, ECLIPSE, is slated to debut its black water this year in some trendy Vegas nightclubs. All three brands market essentially the same thing: natural spring water with added fulvic and humic acids. It is this proprietary mineral mixture that gives the water its black color.

But what are these fulvic and humic acids, and why would manufacturers add them to their water?

Humic substances result from the partial decomposition of plant materials under low oxygen conditions, such as those found in peat bogs and swamps. The composition of these substances varies, since the substances themselves are complex mixtures of different acids. Fulvic acids have lower molecular weights and higher oxygen contents than humic acids, and are unique in that they are able to travel across cell membranes.

Humic substances are the primary organic component of soil; they are used to make poor soil more nutrient-rich. Humic acids can also capture heavy metals such as copper, iron, lead, mercury, and zinc in their structure. [Reference] Currently, fulvic acid cannot be synthesized, but must be derived from material taken from humate mines.

By all accounts, fulvic and humic acids in water do not apparently pose health hazards—unless they are a sign of some other form of contamination. The FDA notes, however, bottled water in general has a good record of safety.

Yet why do manufacturers enrich their water with these substances? Well, that is where all the sciencey bits come in … and where we find some seriously sciencey—and not-so-sciencey—claims.

What’s in It and What’s Not

Black water manufacturers claim on their websites that black water contains about seventy minerals and trace elements. Each manufacturer has its own proprietary blend of minerals, so we don’t know exactly which minerals and trace elements are present in the water. Supposedly this mineral content creates a superior electrolyte with antioxidant properties that makes black water better for hydration than regular water. Since hydrate means “to add water,” I’m not sure how black water can be more hydrating than any other kind.

I assume the idea is that the added minerals give black water its superior ability to hydrate, yet we need so little of trace elements and minerals that we have no trouble obtaining them through our normal eating habits. In fact, overconsumption of these minerals and elements can be toxic to our systems.

According to the Blackwater website, current foods are not nutritious enough because crops are grown in nutrient-deficient soils with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides; the extra minerals from their beverage enhance all sorts of bodily functions. Such claims appeal not only to the naturalistic fallacy that organic products are somehow better for the body but also to what might be called the fallacy of the “good old days,” a time when food was better.

That’s bogus. Carrots today are no less nutritious than they were years ago. I could argue that our diet today is far more nutrient-rich than it was in the “good old days,” since we now have year-long access to food that was once seasonal or strictly tropical. What’s more, many foods are already enriched with extra vitamins and minerals.

Black water sites repeatedly use the words “perfect” and “balanced” to refer to the mineral content of their products. But what is “perfect,” and how do the manufacturers know? According to the label from ECLIPSE, its water contains 0 percent of the vitamins and minerals listed on the food label (iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, etc.). If the company’s special proprietary blend does not include these standard minerals, then what substances does it contain? There was no additional quality information on the bottle or on the company’s website regarding the minerals, metals, and other materials present in its water. Perfect and balanced seem arbitrary and meaningless: I need more than just this water to stay alive, so it is far from perfect!

I wondered, too, if the mineral content includes high levels of unwanted metals like mercury or arsenic. So, I contacted the companies to see how much information they would share about the content of their proprietary blends.

I requested water sample results from blk. and ECLIPSE to compare to drinking water standards established by the EPA for municipal water supplies. An email and Facebook wall post to blk. Beverages garnered no response from that manufacturer. ECLIPSE did reply to my email to say that they were in the process of obtaining water samples. That seemed odd since they have apparently bottled and marketed the stuff already: they don’t know what’s in it yet? Interestingly, ECLIPSE wanted to know with whom I was affiliated. (Perhaps a rival company?) When I said I was “independent,” I received no follow-up response.

On the other hand, the label on my favorite clear flavored water notes that water quality information is available by contacting the beverage company and even provides a phone number and website. Quite a black and white contrast!

Claims for Health Benefits

The Blackwater website has pages of hype about the benefits of its black water. It is worth reading through for all the examples of “sciencey-ness.”

Yet manufacturers of black water admit that research to support the supposed health benefits of black water is scant; what research has been conducted has focused on the benefits to plant and livestock growth in China and Europe, not to people, and not here in the United States. My Pub Med search confirmed this. Research papers on “fulvic acid supplement” returned 5 results; “humic acid supplement,” 11 results; and, in combination, the two items returned 3 results. By comparison, similar searches for calcium, vitamin D, or iron supplements returned 2,000–4,000 results each. The manufacturers of black water seem to have extrapolated from a few studies and gone beyond them into the land of anecdotes, testimonials, and imaginative tales of the benefits of their products. Another “fact” used to market black water products: Black water has a naturally high pH level of 9. Its low acidity, the black water people say, “balances natural bodily pH levels.” ECLIPSE water coined a new verb out of its water’s pH-balancing abilities, saying that its water “alkalines the blood faster than any other natural product on earth.” Whatever their meaning, drinking water will not affect your blood pH. This pH puffery is associated with alkaline diet claims that promote an alkaline body pH as a cure for cancer. None of these claims is supported by medical consensus.

Blk. does not provide an extensive list of health claims on its website (smart move), nor does the company claim that its product has cancer-curing properties; but it draws a definite connection between the product and cancer treatment. The Manzo-Laurita family obtained the idea for blk. water from a family who claimed it helped their mother beat breast cancer.

Miracles and Magic

A good indicator to stick a skeptical red flag on any product is that it is credited with treating a wide array of conditions. I found fulvic acid noted for all of the following: a potential treatment for benign (and some cancerous) tumors; a chelation agent for removing toxic metals; a metabolism booster; “a donor and acceptor free radical scavenger and antioxidant”; a corrector of cell imbalances and an aid in cellular regeneration; an antiviral; a destroyer of the HIV virus; a blood coagulant; a treatment for eye diseases, thyroid tumors, colds and asthma, diabetes, and tuberculosis; and a key to longevity and health. [Reference – PDF] No one product has yet been found that can realistically do all this.

Calling fulvic acid “the miracle molecule,” ECLIPSE water claims detoxifying properties due to fulvic acid’s ability to bind to metals. It also lists the typical claims that supplements make about sustaining the immune system and aiding the body in nutrient absorption. This places their water on a growing list of nutraceuticals, products with lower profits than pharmaceuticals but also far less clinical research to back them up.

The site Supreme Fulvic, which promotes fulvic acid as a dietary supplement, was especially effusive in its hype, stating that “fulvic acid has been discovered to be one of the most important miracles of life itself.” Of course, they add, doctors don’t want you to know about this “miracle of unparalleled proportions” because it would threaten the future profits of pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and health professionals.

This claim is a silly but common and faulty ploy of marketers. Doctors are not in business, however, to keep you sick regardless of the claims of conspiracy theorists.

Finally, Shilajit, a product that contains fulvic acid, is said to be associated with “magical” properties and part of the ancient yogis’ secrets of longevity and health.

So, black water marketers have taken the sciencey angle to target the new age and organic folks and the alternative medicine subscribers. All bases covered! But wait, they also appeal to real housewives. Laurita on Real Housewives of New Jersey says, "Scientists called it [fulvic acid] the miracle molecule because it’s so small." She added that drinking blk. water would make your hair, nails, and skin glow and could also help with hangovers. Wow! I bet it cleans my car too. What doesn’t it do?

Black water has a dark side, for sure. It’s a gimmick. Once you learn the sales pitch used to market useless dietary supplements or overpriced, overhyped food stuffs, you can begin to understand sciencey market-speak pretty easily. There is much of it in the organic aisle of the supermarket.

I can’t conclude that any of us needs fulvic/humic acid supplements, and there currently is no evidence I have found to support that the “miracle” fulvic acid does anything to benefit your health. I would predict that the oddness of the black water products and the price, combined with no observable benefits to the consumer, will likely result in this fad fading away. But give them a prize for their stylish, sciencey black marketing.

Have comments on this article? Send them to Sharon at shill@centerforinquiry.net. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @idoubtit.

Sharon Hill

Sharon Hill's photo

Sharon Hill specializes in issues of science and the public and runs the Doubtful News website. Sharon can be reached at shill@centerforinquiry.net.