Hot Air

Japanese consumers swallowing oxygenated water
by Bonnie Lee La Madeleine

The first time I saw the phrase "drinkable oxygen" on a bottle next to Volvic in Lawson's, I laughed. I racked my brain to remember what I learned in Physiology 101. What benefit could drinking oxygen have on my cardio or neurological function? If I remembered correctly - none. Oxygen enters the body through the lungs. In fact, gases in the digestive system usually have embarrassing outcomes. But I must have missed something.

After all, hyper-oxygenated water is being offered for our parched gullets for an average of 184 yen / 500 ml bottle by several companies. That is 30 to 70 yen more than a bottle of spring water. Why? Is there a real health benefit or is the success (however brief) a triumph of marketing?

Why Oxygenated Water?
What's wrong with water? Or rather, what is better about water saturated with oxygen? Asahi laces its introduction to SuperH2O with an explanation of how a hypotonic liquid works. In our bodies, water is hypotonic, meaning water is able to pass into our cells through osmosis because the concentration of water is lower inside rather than outside the cell. This is important for preserving the health of plant and human cells. Maintaining appropriate levels of hydration happens through osmosis, the simplest of cellular processes. It is a passive process, no energy is required, just a permeable membrane. It's minimally frustrated entropy that causes all things to move to a state of lowest energy.

Reducing the pressure of the water that is entering the body is easy, but the rate of water diffusion across a barrier is also dependent on the barrier preventing uncontrolled flow into and out of the cell. Cell membranes are semi-permeable. But is the net benefit really that wonderful?

Water is leeched from ingested food and liquid as they pass through the digestive system. Oxygen, however, enters through our noses and mouths and reaches cells via the circulatory system. Would swallowed oxygen do more than produce flatulence? Probably not.

Does priming water with O2 truly improve physical and mental performance? It seems unlikely. Dr. Craig Horswill, of the Gatorade Sport Science Institute, published on-line a study comparing the benefits on performance of water and oxygenated water. No differences were found. Horswill cites another study, by the University of Wisconsin, with the same results. These studies were available in 2002. Yet 2006 was the break-through year for Japanese consumers.

Why now? Well according to Kirin's 2005 annual report, the market for soft drinks (including tea, coffee, soda, fruit juices, waters, and sports drinks) in Japan was over four trillion yen. While a growing market, it is a fickle one prone to fads. Case in point: in 2005 the love affair with sports drinks cooled by 33%, including those now tepid amino-supplemented drinks that were the rage for the past few years.

What They're Drinking
Plain bottled water lacks freshness. Japanese consumers crave new experiences and a shot of O2 is as novel an experience as any other. Here are some of the oxygenated waters they can choose from.

Asahi's "Super H2O." Asahi says the beverage has SO2-, also called hyposulfite. In solution, this ion helps reduce the osmotic pressure of water from 280 to 300 mOsm/kg to 200 mOsm/kg. This lower pressure reduces the energy required for water to enter into the cells, the maker claims, and thereby increases the rate of hydration.

Suntory's Hinyokyuu and Oxygen Diet. Hinyokyuu, or New Breath, might be described as a 'second wind' for exercisers. Ads for this drink commonly show a human brain, suggesting the benefit of improved cerebral functioning. I'm still trying to puzzle out the other product, Oxygen Diet. It contains 40 mg/l of oxygen, tastes like medicine and claims to be "drinkable oxygen."

Adelhozener's O2. Adelhozener, a German health-product company, is marketing only in Japan a water drink called O2 that boasts 15 times the oxygen content of regular water. It is bubbly like most gas-infused drinks, although the bubbles are smaller than those in sparkling waters.

Patent Medicine Salesmen Redux
While the companies make claims based on slightly different scientific principles, I cannot help thinking that they are modern versions of yesteryear's traveling salesmen, peddling aphrodisiacs, pick-me-ups, and cures for venereal diseases and sexual dysfunction.

Patent medicines were products, usually with trademarks rather than patents, that were sold in elaborate road shows - road shows lampooned in movies and cartoons in the 1930s. Poppy (1936), for example, features W.C. Fields playing a snake oil salesman. To prevent these abuses of public trust, regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration in the United States were set up.

Okay, oxygenated water is probably not going to give anyone a sustained burst of energy, but it is harmless. So why give it a second thought? I suppose it all comes down to what it takes to get a person to fork over money to a stranger for a product. Isn't it the beauty of marketing that it creates a need inducing someone to hand over 180 yen for a bottle of water saturated with oxygen that will fly out the moment he opens it? JI

While the beverage companies make claims based on slightly different scientific principles, I cannot help thinking that they are modern versions of yesteryear's traveling salesmen, peddling aphrodisiacs. pick-me-ups, and cures for venereal diseases and sexual dysfunction.