When most people think of tonic water, they think of it being mixed with gin and vodka so it might be difficult to identify exactly what it’s made of. But tonic water has a long history as a beverage in its own right, and this distinctive bitter drink has long been used for health purposes.
Simply put, tonic water is traditionally carbonated water that is mixed with quinine, a compound taken from the bark of the cinchona tree.
Taking quinine has long been used to treat malaria, and tonic water has existed since the early 19th century as a malaria remedy among other uses. But tonic water can also contain multiple other ingredients - and some of them may not be so good for you. Also, drinking too much tonic water could carry other risks for health. Check out our article below for everything you need to know about this bitter beverage.
What is Tonic Water Made of?
Tonic water is made of two main ingredients: carbonated water and quinine., the later which gives tonic water its distinctive taste.
It was originally invented by British officials stationed in India in the 19th century when they would mix quinine powder, prescribed as a malaria remedy, with soda and sugar. Although quinine was mostly used as a treatment for malaria, it was adopted to treat other conditions too like arthritis and lupus.
The levels of quinine in modern tonic water are so low to offer any medicinal benefits. So although it’s sometimes considered to have some health-giving properties, it is just water with some flavoring. Additionally the World Health Organization no longer recommends quinine as a first line treatment for malaria since 2006. This is because of its potential side effects, like stomach cramps and vomiting. Nevertheless quinine is safe to consume in small amounts. The quinine in tonic water is so diluted that generally it will cause no harmful side effects, but allergic reactions and sensitivities can still occur.
What is most notable is that tonic water often contains sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other potentially unattractive additives that can be troublesome for your health. Drinking too much tonic water with a high sugar content is akin to drinking other processed and sugary beverages. You should take tonic water in moderation, especially if it has a high sugar content.
Fun fact: the quinine in tonic water reacts to ultraviolet light. If you have a source of ultraviolet light, put a bottle of tonic water underneath it and watch the tonic water glow a vivid blue!
What are the Main Benefits of Tonic Water?
Simply put aside from making delicious gin beverages, tonic water benefits do not extend beyond regular hydration. This said drinking tonic water benefits you in the following ways
- It is good for hydration: As a drink that is mostly just water, tonic water is good for hydration. Its benefits do not extend beyond this as the quinine is too low to give any real benefit to your body. A natural diet tonic water free of any sugar and low on additives, might be a healthy alternative to water or sugary soda.
- It makes for a delicious gin beverage: Tonic water can have some psychological benefits if trying to cut back on alcohol - order regular tonic water instead of a gin and tonic, and the bitterness we know and love will still be in reach without the booze!
Although some will argue that quinine can prevent leg cramps this is simply not true. While quinine has been historically used for the treatment of nocturnal leg cramps or restless leg syndrome, drinking tonic water doesn’t contain high enough levels of quinine to be effective. What’s more, is that modern recommendation say to avoid quinine for this purpose as it may produce profound and life-threatening side effects such as low blood platelets, heart arrhythmia, and chronic renal impairment. Anyone considering quinine as a remedy for health issues should both consult with a doctor for medical advice.
Are There Risks in Drinking Tonic Water?
Tonic water is generally safe to drink, especially if you plan to drink it only in small amounts.
- The average bottle of tonic water has a high sugar content. Store bough tonic water often comes loaded with sugar or high fructose corn syrup - and despite its clear appearance, medicinal ingredients, and use of 'tonic' in the name, it's decidedly not a product that's geared towards health. The average bottle of tonic water contains around 30g of sugar, which is over 6 teaspoons worth. This not only packs a hefty caloric punch - particularly in combination with alcohol - but it’s also a large amount of the daily sugar intake for adults.
- Diet tonic water brands are not always healthy. Sure, there are diet tonic water brands out there with fewer additives and sugar. But unfortunately, they will still contain some additives like aspartame.
- Some people can experience side effects from the quinine content. Although the amount of quinine in tonic water is very small, quinine consumption can cause symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, ringing in the ears, and/or vomiting, among other symptoms. If this occurs when drinking tonic water, stop immediately and seek health information from a professional.
What Are Some Alternatives To Tonic Water?
If looking for an alternative to tonic water, soda water will give the same carbonated sensation and clear color without the bitter flavor of quinine. Regular soda water is generally free of any sugar, flavor modifiers, or additives, too - so it’s a much healthier choice. If the aim is to use tonic water in an alcoholic cocktail like a gin or vodka tonic, it’s also possible to mix in aromatic bitters to soda water, to replicate the bitter taste without the quinine.
Tonic water can also be substituted by other sodas like lemon-lime for a sweeter flavor that’s free of quinine. Bear in mind, though, that lemon-lime soda will likely contain a similar amount of sugar - and potentially more - unless it’s a diet version, and may also contain additional artificial flavorings. So it might be a great choice if people are looking to get rid of a source of quinine, but not necessarily if looking to cut down on sugar.
The Bottom Line
Tonic water is a delicious and popular carbonated drink. You can use it for alcoholic beverages but you can also enjoy it on its own. The quinine that gives tonic water its distinctive taste has benefits and side effects. But because the quinine content of tonic water is very low, you are not likely to enjoy these benefits or suffer the side effects. However, allergies and sensitivities can still occur.
Tonic water has additives and sugar, so it’s not exactly healthy and therefore be particularly troublesome for those trying to control their weight and sugar. If you still want to drink tonic water, you should look for brands that have little to no additives and sugar. You can also try some alternatives like lemon-lime soda and soda water to replicate the taste and texture of the tonic water you know and love.