- Since a late December article on the topic of a "raw water" craze sweeping Silicon Valley, numerous publications have been weighing in on this dangerous trend.
- This story seems to be based in older stories about the popularity of intermittent fasting among the tech crowd.
- I think it's unlikely that the trend is as big as we're led to believe, and further that the NYT article has unnecessarily elevated the status of this fringe fad, creating more headaches for everyone.
There’s been a sudden shock of articles lately on the topic of “raw water”, a health craze supposedly sweeping California, and in particular, Silicon Valley.
Raw water refers to water which has not been treated or filtered in any sense - essentially, drawn from nature without any processing. It should be evident from the start that this isn’t a good idea - we don’t filter our water for nothing, and there’s good reasons why we do it: because untreated, water can contain all kinds of nasty parasites, viruses, and bacteria.
It should also be evident that any claims that raw water is better than filtered water, for any reason, aren’t based in any fact. It also highly smacks of the appeal to nature. I went ahead and studied the given materials for the company that sells this water, and it’s clear that it’s not based in any scientific study: it’s basically just a guy who decided to sell water from the ground a few years ago, based on nothing more than some unfounded claims that silica is good, or something. Silica? Silicon Valley? Boom!
Raw water entered the public consciousness, as far as I can tell, due to a major NYT article published in late December. This article essentially claimed that raw water was becoming a health craze and that one store in San Francisco was selling it as quickly as they could get their hands on it. They mentioned two particular brands of water (Live Water, and Tourmaline Spring), and go on to interview the founder of Live Water, as well as a handful of proponents of the water. The article gives the impression that yes, this is a health craze passing through Silicon Valley.
This jives with the impressions that outsiders get of Silicon Valley: an out-of-touch crystal tower full of rich idiots with more money than sense, all absurdly competitive in their desire to outdo each other. It makes sense: if some dumb trend like this were to catch on, it seems like the ideal place for it to do so.
At the same time, I’d like to push back against the idea that raw water is “a thing”.
In late September, a story went around about Doug Evans, the founder of recently-defunct juicer startup Juicero, going on a “water fast”. This water fast includes the consumption of nothing but water for “a minimum of five days”. The article also pictured Evans with “Fountain of Truth” raw water, which as far as I can tell is simply the same Live Water company mentioned later in the NYT article, since they have the exact same logo. I’m guessing a minor rebrand of some sort.
You would think that juicers aren’t something that requires reinvention, but you’d be wrong: Juicero got $100 million in funding to do just that. What they created was a device which, while beautiful and capable of being connected to your wifi so that it could automatically purchase you more juice when you started running out, also required “proprietary juice bags” full of pre-made juice and fruit bits which, it turns out, could be juiced by hand without the need of the juicero juicer. In short, the device cost $700, and its major functionality was that it could squeeze a bag for you. Doug Evans apparently founded Juicero after his previous business, Organic Avenue, also failed.
Doug Evans’ water fast was pitched as an extension of the fad of intermittent fasting, which has been popular in health circles since Martin Berkhan popularized it as a superior dietary approach for bodybuilding, and more recently in tech circles since Tim Ferriss seems to like it.
In intermittent fasting, you alternate periods of fasting with regular periods of consumption, with the intention of cutting calories and having favorable effects on body composition. However, the research has shown that intermittent fasting is not a superior dietary approach when all factors are taken into account, and its primary benefit may just be that it helps with the psychological difficulty of eating fewer calories.
I would argue that Doug Evans’ “water fast” has less in common with intermittent fasting (popular with health enthusiasts and “body hackers” as it may be) and more in common with juice fasts, a temporary period of consuming nothing but juice with the intent of clearing the body of poisons or some similar mumbo jumbo. Juice fasts can cause rapid weight loss due to the low calorie content of these juices, but this isn’t a healthy or sustainable long term plan, and you’re likely to regain the weight as soon as you go off the fast. They don’t have any of the other magical benefits attributed to them, and can pose significant health risks due to their low calorie content.
Water fasts seem more likely to be an extension of the similarly liquid juice fasts than anything else, especially since (as I understand it) there’s not really anything “intermittent” about it (in the regular alternating on/off sense that intermittent fasting is normally used). Water and juice fasts are more like a “binge fast” than anything else, fasting in one block for as long as possible before going back to normal consumption patterns, with proponents always seeming to argue that longer is better.
It should be clear from this much that Evans is just a hippie hack who doesn’t know much about health, or running a good business. Why reporters thought it was a good idea to report on this bizarre behavior is unclear, aside from the fact that Juicero had recently fallen apart and that it would make fun headlines to say “hey, look what this goof is doing!”. This is a clear cut example of why traditional journalism can't really be trusted to report on health topics: because they like to report sensational, inaccurate stories over more accurate ones.
Raw water seems to have gone entirely unremembered in the mainstream media from that article until late December. At that point, an article in the Guardian warned about the negative health impacts of water fasts, which it described as a dangerous instagram trend. Indeed, it seems that water fasting has become sort of “a thing” on instagram, though it's still not based in any science. It wasn’t long from there before the NYT article hit it big, and suddenly everyone has opinions on the dangerous raw water trend.
I think it’s unlikely that raw water is as big of a trend as is proposed.
Live Water’s website, for example, is amateurish to the extreme. The company, founded 3 years ago, delivers water by truck to only two areas: San Francisco and Los Angeles. It seems like the kind of small operation that could be run by about 5-10 employees and a handful of trucks.
Meanwhile, their social media presence is minimal: *I* have a more developed social media presence than they do, and I’m certainly no celebrity yet. Their founder, a guy named Mukhande Singh, is a white guy who changed his name for, Reasons, I guess. The expensive cost of Live Water makes it seem unlikely that it has much of a hold outside of a small, wealthy elite.
In short, I doubt that this is really much of a trend. It’s easy to poke fun at Silicon Valley technocrats, and there’s certainly a lot wrong with the idea of buying expensive water in the (false, completely unfounded) hopes that it will improve your health, but I think the reality is that raw water is, and has always been, a fringe element that was going to die out on its own.
These trends come and go. After all, there’s a sucker born every minute. The education of the public on health topics is a constant process as some people die out and more are born to take their place. We can’t expect everyone to perfectly understand the fuzzy science of being healthy.
Who’s the winner in this situation? By pointlessly bringing this non-story into the headlines, it’s likely that the NYT story has had a backfire effect which both convinces this man that his business is justified and also heightens his social profile, leading to more sales. Meanwhile, major publications can scramble to run stories about the topic, wring their hands, get some clicks, and continue to draw advertising revenue that keeps their puIblications alive.
The losers are: the common public, having to think (or in my case, write!) about these pointless topics, thus wasting mental energy. Further hurt is anybody purchasing this water, who’s both losing money and likely damaging their long-term health.
Raw water isn’t A Thing. Stop making it A Thing.
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