In the beginning, God created water. Sometime after that and the discovery of shapely green glass -- manufacturers bottled and sold it. But they could not take a rest. So they added natural flavorings to it, then sweeteners, and maybe a little fruit juice.

Known as "New Age beverages" in industry lingo, these waters, spiked with fruit flavors and/or juices and often high fructose corn syrup, are flooding downtown delis, health food stores and upscale supermarkets.

"Everybody, everybody, everybody is getting in" the business, says Helen Berry, vice president of marketing for Beverage Marketing Corp., a beverage consulting firm. The category grew from 33.5 million gallons in 1985 to 212 million gallons in 1991, Berry said. That's a lot of water, but still minuscule compared to the 12.2 billion gallons of soft drinks sold last year.

Bottled in boutique-beautiful containers and labeled with delicate drawings of fresh fruit, these clear or tinted waters are being marketed as "lifestyle" products, like juicers and Jacuzzis.

"Those who don't purchase traditional soft drinks are looking for a different type of beverage product that has good-for-you overtones," says Denis Weil, vice president of marketing and sales for Koala Springs International.

But the reality is that many of these products do not differ substantially in their ingredients or nutritional content from traditional sodas. Manufacturers muddied the waters, so to speak, as they did with flavored elaborations of granola bars and rice cakes.

"If you take a bottled water, carbonate it, sweeten it some and add flavoring, in effect you have a soft drink," says Howard Roberts, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Soft Drink Association. "If you don't call it that, it has some appeal. If you charge three times as much for it, it has more appeal."

Of course, colas contain caffeine, while the flavored waters do not. And they are not artificially colored, such as soft drinks like Orange Crush.

But because they contain high fructose corn syrup, as do traditional soft drinks, they contain a comparable number of calories. For example, a 12-ounce can of 7-Up, Sprite or Coca-Cola contains 150 calories, or 12.5 calories per ounce. A 12-ounce bottle of Glacier Ridge Sparking Spring Water with Natural Fruit Flavor contains 140 calories. Other flavored waters contain slightly fewer calories, but they still average about 10 calories per ounce.

Some of the flavored waters -- even while flaunting "natural" all over their labels -- do contain the preservative sodium benzoate. While it is generally safe, according to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, sodium benzoate is likewise added to many fruit-flavored soft drinks to preserve the taste.

For example, Clearly Canadian, the country's largest-selling flavored water, touts "made with natural Canadian water" on the label, as well as "natural flavor." Yet the ingredient panel lists sodium benzoate. It also contains malic acid, citric acid and tartaric acid, acidifying agents that are safe but all man-made, Jacobson says. In fact, the ingredients differ little from 7-Up, which does not contain artificial flavorings or colorings either.

Not all flavored waters are created equal, however, which has led to confusing choices for consumers, as even the manufacturers agree. Some of these companies -- who often contract with large franchise bottlers to make their products -- sell flavored waters with similar labels but different ingredient profiles.

"People aren't sure what constitutes a healthier drink," says Paul Wagner, spokesman for Crystal Geyser. "Quite often, they'll choose a drink because of the picture on the label, or what their children whine for. When faced with a wall of products, they don't take the time to read the ingredient labels."

Even so, the label doesn't tell all -- or it tells only part of the story.

"What's really confusing about the category is that you have 'sparkling waters,' many of which are not necessarily made from spring water. Sparkling means nothing. It just means it's carbonated," says Marc Greenblatt, president of Glacier Ridge Beverage Co.

Some of the products list "filtered water," although Roberts from the National Soft Drink Association says that all water used in soft drinks is filtered.

Regardless, there are no federal definitions for terms such as "sparkling water" or "spring water," and there is considerable controversy over whether certain waters are really superior to others. In addition, a congressional subcommittee last year found that a number of bottled waters are derived from the same sources as ordinary tap water.

In most cases, it's also impossible to ascertain the total amount of fruit juice in the product -- or the percentage of each juice added -- although that may change soon when the Food and Drug Administration's new labeling law goes into effect. In general, however, most of them contain little or no juice.

So if you want to drink a flavored water, how do you choose one? There are plenty of inexpensive flavored club sodas or pricier waters such as Perrier and Quibell that offer versions with a twist of natural fruit flavoring, but no added sugar. These have no calories.

Check the label to see if it lists "fructose," or "high fructose corn syrup." Even if the water is clear, it still may have almost as many calories as a soft drink. If the bottle lists calories, pay attention to the serving size. Crystal Geyser Mountain Spring Sparkler lists the calories per six-ounce serving, even though the bottle is 10 ounces.

If you want a product that is primarily juice with water added rather than vice versa, Sundance Sparkler, Everfresh, R.W. Knudsen Spritzers and Crystal Geyser Juice Squeeze are among those that contain 70 percent or more juice. But be aware that products with fancier flavor names, such as kiwi or raspberry, probably contain a lot more white grape or apple juices.

Don't be turned off if the product is called "soda." There are a few "natural sodas," such as Naturale90, Best Health's All Natural Gourmet Soda and Quibell Appalachian Premium Soda on the market that are virtually the same as the flavored waters.

And finally, if you want a fruit-flavored water customized to your taste, cost and nutritional specifications, simply purchase a bottle of club soda and add your own juice.

COMPARING SOME WATERS WITH FRUIT JUICE ADDED

BRAND: Chapelle Sparkling Spring Water

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 9

CALORIES: 70-90

PERCENT JUICE: 5-10

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Crystal Geyser Juice Squeeze

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 10

CALORIES: 115

PERCENT JUICE: 70

SWEETENER ADDED: No

BRAND: Everfresh Sparkling Mineral Water

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 10

CALORIES: 125-135

PERCENT JUICE: 70

SWEETENER ADDED: No

BRAND: Glacier Ridge Non-Carbonated Spring Water and Juice

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 12

CALORIES: 140

PERCENT JUICE: 15-20

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Koala Springs Sparkling Water & Fruit Juice

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 9.6

CALORIES: 75-100

PERCENT JUICE: 10

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: R.W. Knudsen Fruit Juice Spritzer

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 10

CALORIES: 75-125

PERCENT JUICE: 70-100

SWEETENER ADDED: No

BRAND: Snapple

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 16

CALORIES: 200

PERCENT JUICE: 10

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Sundance Sparkler

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 10

CALORIES: 105-135

PERCENT JUICE: 70

SWEETENER ADDED: No

COMPARING SOME WATERS WITH FRUIT FLAVORING ADDED

BRAND: Best Health's All Natural Gourmet Soda

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 12

CALORIES: 115-120

PERCENT JUICE: O

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Clearly Canadian Sparkling Water

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 11

CALORIES: 100-120

PERCENT JUICE: 0

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Crystal Geyser Mountain Spring Sparkler

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 10

CALORIES: 90

PERCENT JUICE: 0

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Glacier Ridge Sparkling Spring Water with Natural Fruit Flavor

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 12

CALORIES: 140

PERCENT JUICE: 0

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Original New York Seltzer

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 10

CALORIES: 90-115

PERCENT JUICE: 0

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Royal Mystic

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 11

CALORIES: 120

PERCENT JUICE: 0

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes

BRAND: Quibell Appalachian Premium Soda

BOTTLE SIZE (ounces): 8.45

CALORIES: 77.5

PERCENT JUICE: 0

SWEETENER ADDED: Yes