TCS Daily

Don't Go Near the Water

By Duane D. Freese - August 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians were thrown into a Third World state last week thanks to Hurricane Charley. Not only did they lack the civilizing comfort, vital in Florida's heat, of air conditioning, thanks to massive power outages, but many also have had to do without something even more important -- potable water.

Would, though, that they also had a little less sophisticated advice and just relied a bit more on their common sense, as less-civilized people have done over the centuries.

A Sarasota newspaper, seeking no doubt to give people some sharp advice, quoted a hospital emergency room technician warning them to drink lots of fluid, but not "beer and caffeinated beverages such as iced tea and soft drinks" because "they drain, rather than restore, fluids from the body."

Some beverages are certainly better than others at rehydrating people's bodies, sports drinks such as Gatorade and Powerade among them. But the "diuretic" effect attributed to moderately alcoholic beverages such as beer and to moderately caffeinated beverages such as tea or most non-energy soft drinks don't "drain" fluids from the body, unless you really overdo them. In a pinch, history has demonstrated they are better than taking a chance on bad water.

To live, people need liquid. But one of the nastier tricks of nature, as Floridians are discovering, is that some ugly things live in liquids unless they are filtrated, aerated, chlorinated or otherwise thoroughly cleansed of contaminants.

In that regard, those without clean water in Florida face the same drinking water problem that plagues much of the developing world today, and most of mankind since people gave up their hunter-gatherer ways and established "civilized" agrarian settlements. Indeed, civilization's greatest discontent rests in what people have suffered from what they had to drink.

Today, an estimated 25 million people die each year from such water-borne diseases as cholera, typhoid, dysentery, gastroenteritis, giardiasis, schistosomiasis and hepatitis A. Those plagues over history have killed more people than all the wars, traffic accidents and other pestilences combined.

Indeed, it was to avoid the dire consequences from drinking "plain" water -- or to counteract their effects -- that led to the creation of many of the alcoholic and caffeinated beverages that we have today.

Beer, for example, traces back 2,000 years to Sumeria. The term itself comes from the Latin, bibere, "to drink."

Through most of history beer wasn't the mostly clear lager most people drink today. Many were yeasty-tasting barley brews. But just about everybody -- including children -- drank some form of them, because they were safer than water. Their alcohol helped a little to keep them safe in casks for transport, as water tended to spoil on long journeys. But mostly they were safe because they were brewed -- boiled -- killing most of the bacteria and germs that play havoc with people's intestines.

A recent History Channel show -- Brewed in America -- even noted that the reason that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, rather than in the more temperate south, was because, according to a diary entry, "We could not now take time for further search or consideration; our victuals being much spent, especially our beere." Beere was so popular that Puritans were admonished to limit their drink to a couple pints for breakfast.

How much were people drinking? Well, in the mid 19th Century, some 40 breweries in St. Louis produced 200,000 barrels of beer for a local populace of 60,000. That works out to nearly 108 gallons for every man, woman and child. Compare that to the 54 gallons of soft drinks -- 22 gallons of which are zero calorie diet drinks -- Americans consume today, and it's apparent people drank beer a lot.

So, if beer "drained" people of fluids, civilization, as we know it, would have come to an end a long time ago.

What about caffeine drinks? They, too, developed as a way to make boiled water taste more palatable. Teas are as ancient a brew as any in mankind. Native tribes developed coffee drinks and colas. Mate, a highly caffeinated herbal tea, is a popular drink in hotter regions of South America. So if caffeine was a terrible diuretic as claimed, the drinks would never have been tolerated by various cultures and civilizations. They drank them in large measure because they helped them survive.

In fact, most recent studies indicate that people develop a tolerance to caffeine so it is less diuretic, and that its effect as a diuretic kicks in at above 300 milligrams a day. Consider that eight ounces of brewed coffee has about 80 milligrams, iced tea a more meager 47, Pepsi 40 and Classic Coke about 35, and you could drown before you drank enough to drain you. And even then the diuretic effect would be transitory.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences this February even said that caffeinated beverages can count toward meeting ones needs for hydration.

None of this means that people should drink beer, or soft drinks, or tea. And with the myriad choices being added every year to our beverage stable by beverage makers, you can pretty much find alternatives that will suit every hydration or energy need there is under the sun.

But to be afraid of drinking a beer, iced tea or soft drink if one is hot and tired is a kind of sophisticated nonsense, based neither on sound science or the lessons of history. But don't go near the water, unless you know it's safe.


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