Japan's Must-Read Magazine

H2Oh No!

 The bottled water shelf at my local drug store has become curiouser and curiouser. The simple formula of “one part oxygen + two parts hydrogen = water” – a recipe that has been working fine since the time of the primordial ooze – has been tweaked.

Old favorites like Volvic and Pierre are being crowded out by a host of new “functional” waters claiming to pack more H or O per sip than the water coming out of my tap back home. Japan’s market for bottled water has been flooded with products such as Oxygenizer, H4O, Oxygen02, Oishii Suiso-sui (“delicious hydrogen water”) and Sanso O2 Plus, just to name a few.

Even some of Japan’s biggest firms have been testing the waters in this previously niche market. Beverage giant Asahi Soft Drinks Co., Ltd. offers bottles of oxygenated water boasting 7.5 times the oxygen content of regular water. Ito En Co., Ltd., Japan’s largest distributor of bottled green tea, has added a hydrogen-rich water to its lineup. Japan’s second-largest convenience store chain, Lawson Inc., has also taken the plunge by producing a house-brand water souped-up with 12 times the oxygen content of “standard” mizu.

So what is the point of adding more oxygen or hydrogen to water? The makers of oxygen-rich water “suggest” (but go no further) that their products can improve your health, slow the aging process and increase mental awareness, among other benefits. Meanwhile, the hydrogen-rich water makers “hint” that their waters can improve your health, slow the aging process and increase mental awareness, among other benefits.

Then there is Dr. Hidemistu Hayashi, Director of Japan’s Water Institute and creator of the Hydrogen Water Stick. The good doctor developed his hydrogen-generating mineral stick for those armchair pseudo-scientists who want to make healthier water at home. Simply plop one of these sticks in a bottle of water, and in 15 minutes you will have hydrogen-rich water, which purportedly can provide you with thicker and fuller hair, reduce wrinkles and even relieve constipation.

What would happen if I dropped a hydrogen stick into a bottle of oxygen-infused water? I imagine the result would be akin to dumping a pack of Mentos into a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. Unfortunately, I will never try this little experiment as Dr. Hayashi wants $79.95 (¥7,140) per shtick… er, I mean stick.

As you’ve probably ascertained, I am quite skeptical about these products. Drink makers seem to be pumping a little more oxygen or hydrogen into their waters to justify pumping a little more yen out of our pockets. For the sake of full disclosure, I should confess that I failed high school chemistry so I am probably not qualified to write these products off as complete nostrums. So I spoke with Steve Lower, a retired professor of chemistry with Simon Fraser University in Canada. Lower has compiled an extensive catalog of water-based pseudoscience, making him uniquely qualified to help un-muddy these waters.

Lower explained that these so-called functional waters offer little to no benefit, as any extra oxygen or hydrogen is mostly lost when we open the bottle, pour the water into a glass or burp. Furthermore, the stomach is not the best system for delivering oxygen to our bodies. We have an organ that is vastly better suited for this function: our lungs.

So why are Japanese consumers willing to shell out extra yen for boosted hydrogen/oxygen waters that should probably be going into their fish tanks rather than their stomachs?

“I suspect that much of the appeal of pseudoscience and quackery is that they provide simplistic answers that give scientifically-naïve people the illusion of control and understanding of what they perceive as an impossibly complex and overwhelming world,” Lower said.

Lower noted that a disproportionately high number of the water scams he has cataloged originate in Japan and South Korea, but is not sure why. My guess is that the medical profession here is so highly regarded that recommendations from someone like Dr. Hayashi can carry a lot of weight. After all, the esteemed title of “sensei” is only afforded to doctors, teachers and manga artists.

“In contrast to the very weak evidence for the efficacy of most ‘alternative’ remedies, there is abundant documented evidence for the benefits of getting plenty of exercise, a healthy diet, freedom from stress, and engagement in fulfilling creative, social or spiritual activities,” Lower added.

I’ll drink to that! But the question is, what to drink? In addition to the oxygen- and hydrogen-rich waters at my drug store, bottles of ionized kangen water (“regenerated water”), structured water and even something called “nano-bubble water” also fill the shelves. The choices are enough to make my head spin as I try to spell “Evian” backwards in my mind.

I finally make it to the checkout, where the girl behind the register gives me an approving nod as she drops into the plastic bag my beverage of choice – a nice cold bottle of Diet Coke.

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