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The taste of water is subject that a lot of people find weird as they are used to viewing water as something with no particular taste. And if we compare water to other liquids, that’s an understandable reaction.
Water is not as sweet as juice nor as bitter as beer. However, water does have its taste and that taste can vary depending on its mineral content or certain contaminants that may be present. There are over 316 different contaminants that can be detected in water supplies throughout the U.S. and many of them can affect the water’s taste.
One of the most curious and researched tastes of water is its metallic taste. Does your water taste like metal? We’ll list the possible causes and solutions below.
Does water have a taste?
The “basic” taste of clean water (i.e. water with no mineral contents or other impurities) can be described as “mildly sour”. If this feels untrue, keep in mind that the water you’re used to, be it your home’s tap water or your preferred bottled water, is likely not 100% clean. Also, note that we do accent on the mildly in “mildly sour”.
There are many studies that have examined how exactly water interacts with our taste receptor cells (TRCs). This 2017 study, like most others, has determined that water activates our sour taste TRCs and not so much any of the other tastes we usually detect – bitter, sweet, salty, and umami (savory).
This taste reception isn’t random either. The researchers on this study as well as others like the ones on this 2016 neurosignals study have found out that our TRCs are connected to the amygdala part of our brains which controls our emotions and working memory.
Through extensive testing on mice, the researchers discovered that manually tinkering with the sweet and sour TRCs will cause the mice to change their drinking habits. This means that our taste perception of water is vital from an evolutionary perspective as our brains are using to judge the purity of the water and keep us safe from contaminations.
That being said, a lot of the impurities in our drinking water aren’t actually harmful thanks to our water purification plants and other water filtration systems. Most of the taste-altering impurities you’ll find in tap or bottled water are various minerals such as calcium or magnesium which are even beneficial for us.
Types of water tastes and their meaning
A 2013 chemometric blind test taste study determined that most people have difficulties detecting the mild differences in taste between mineral and spring water, tap and bottled water, and other types of drinking water. The several components that people most often managed to detect in water were magnesium (Mg²⁺), calcium (Ca²⁺), bicarbonate (HCO₃⁻), and sulfate (SO₄²⁻).
Other common ingredients such as potassium, sodium, and chloride were seldom noticed.
But what does it mean if your tap or bottled water tastes funny? Can you decipher the contents of water just from its taste the way wine tasters do with wine?
Why does water taste sweet?
If your tap or other water tastes a bit sweeter, the most likely reason is high contents of minerals such as calcium and iron. Flushing, cleaning, or changing your home’s pipes can fix that if you don’t like that taste although we’d recommend contacting a local water testing lab before you try anything too labor-intensive.
It’s also worth noting that our body and brain often confuse taste with smell so it might be that the water isn’t actually sweet but has a slight odor that tricks your olfactory system into thinking the water is sweet.
Why does water taste salty?
If your tap water has a slightly salty taste than it most likely has chloride ions or sulfates in it. This can be caused by different things – industrial waste, irrigation drainage, or even just salt deposits or seawater intrusions. It can even be road salt.
Certain sulfates such as magnesium sulfate or sodium sulfate also occur naturally in rocks and soil so if your local water supply comes from groundwater or rainwater, the salty taste may be perfectly safe. Still, testing your water just to be sure is advised, especially if the salty taste is a sudden and recent occurrence.
Why does water taste bitter?
The bitter taste water sometimes has is due to metal concentrations in the pipes that carry the water but it can also be due to various bacteria, microorganisms, and chemicals.
This bitter taste can often be identified as “metallic” by many people, although others distinguish between the two. Either way, with too many possible contaminants that can cause bitterness, getting your water’s chemical contents tested is a good idea.
Metallic water taste – possible causes
A metallic taste in water can be caused by a myriad of different contaminants and minerals. Many people identify the salty or bitter taste of water as “metallic” so all of the possible reasons we mentioned above can also apply here as well.
The main causes for metallic water taste in tap water are usually these:
- Low pH levels. This is often due to carbon dioxide.”Neutral” water will have a pH mark of around 7 on the 0-14 pH scale and the EPA states that drinking water is safe for consumption with pH levels between 6.5 and 8.5.
- Another possible cause for the metallic taste can be increased quantities of zinc, lead, iron, copper or manganese. These will usually be leaked from the water supply pipes if they are getting old and rusty.
- If you’re supplying your water from a well, a likely cause can be seepage or corrosion of those same metals.
Metallic water taste – solutions
Before you reach for any particular solution, it’s best to test the exact contents of your water. Zinc and iron are generally harmless and have no negative effects. Lead, on the other hand, is extremely toxic, and copper and manganese are not good news either. Do a water test to check what contaminants are polluting your water.
- If the problem needs fixing and if it’s due to outdated and rusty water pipes, then the best solution is to change the pipes. This should be done by your water supplier but it will take some time regardless.
- If you test your metallic-tasting water and it turns out that it has a pH level below 6.5, adjusting the pH is probably your best solution. This can be done by filtering the water or adding substances into the water to balance the pH. For example, a simple solution is to use a water filter pitcher to fix the pH balance yourself if that’s the problem.
- Using a good water filtration system is a good idea if there are unwelcome metal contaminants In the water. Reverse osmosis filters are great against lead as well as many other contaminants.
Activated carbon filters are also good against lead, magnesium, and other contaminants and many reverse osmosis filtration systems will also include such a filter in them. Separate activated carbon filters can also come in the form of pitcher filters, faucet-mounted filters or showerhead-mounted filters.
Distillation also works as it produces almost perfectly pure H2O but it’s quite an expensive and inefficient method overall.
The Bottom Line
There can be a number of reasons that your water tastes metallic, including faulty pipes, an excess of heavy metal contaminants in your water or a low pH. By testing your water, you can pinpoint the exact issue and then take the best steps to solve the problem.
If the metallic taste continues in your mouth, or if you believe that its part of an ongoing health problem, it’s best to see your doctor. This will rule out any disease separate of the water quality itself.