When most people think of tonic water, they think of it being mixed with gin or vodka - and 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 Exactly Is Tonic Water Made From?
Tonic water is typically made of two main ingredients: carbonated water, and quinine. The quinine, from the bark of the cinchona tree that's native to South America, has a powerful bitter taste. People generally use tonic water to mix into a gin and tonic, which makes a delicious and popular cocktail - but it’s also often enjoyed on its own. Quinine is safe to consume in low quantities and is heavily diluted in tonic water - so generally it has no harmful side effects, although some may experience an allergic reaction.
Oftentimes, however, tonic water contains sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and other potentially unattractive additives - and it’s these ingredients that can be troublesome for health. The high sugar content in some tonic water products can mean that when drinking too much of it, it may cause various negative effects akin to drinking other processed and sugary beverages.
What Does The Quinine In Tonic Water Do?
Quinine is a traditional treatment for malaria - and tonic water was originally invented when British officials stationed in India in the 19th century would mix quinine powder, prescribed as a malaria remedy, with soda and sugar. Additionally, quinine was used as a treatment for arthritis and lupus, although less commonly.
Drunk as tonic water, quinine has very little effect on the body - the levels are so small that its medicinal benefit is negligible, as the effects on health are more common in high doses. However, quinine is no longer recommended by the World Health Organisation for first-line treatment for malaria as of 2006, due to its potential side effects such as vomiting and stomach cramps.
Fun fact: the quinine in tonic water reacts to ultraviolet light - so if there’s a source of ultraviolet light handy, put a bottle of tonic water underneath and watch it glow a vivid blue!
What Are The Main Tonic Water Benefits?
Aside from making delicious gin beverages, tonic water benefits do not extend beyond regular hydration. The quinine levels in tonic water are too low to offer any medicinal benefits - so although it’s sometimes considered to have some health-giving properties, and despite the name ‘tonic water’ implying that it’s healthy, it’s just water with some flavoring.
As tonic water is mainly water, though, it’s a good choice for hydration - and a natural diet tonic water, free of any sugar and low on additives, might be a healthy alternative to water or soda. It can also have psychological benefits if people are 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!
Does Drinking Tonic Water Prevent Leg Cramps?
While quinine has also been used traditionally for the treatment of nocturnal leg cramps or restless leg syndrome, drinking tonic water does not have the same therapeutic benefits. Although some people still swear by tonic water as a remedy for these conditions, it simply doesn’t contain high enough levels of quinine to be effective.
What’s more, is that it is typically recommended to avoid quinine entirely for leg cramps, as taking quinine for this purpose is now heavily medically discouraged. Quinine used in order to treat leg conditions may produce profound and life-threatening side effects such as low blood platelets, heart arrhythmia, and chronic renal impairment, and is very risky. Anyone considering quinine as a remedy should both consult with a doctor for medical advice and seek other alternatives.
What Are The Risks Of Drinking Tonic Water?
Although tonic water isn’t usually a big risk to health when consumed occasionally, it’s important to remember that it 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. This sugar content can, of course, can wreak havoc with blood sugar levels and cause spikes that can contribute to low mood and weight gain - so next time someone says that tonic water is a diet drink, think again.
However, there are diet tonic waters available, so if watching sugar levels is a goal, opt for those. Unfortunately, though, diet tonic waters will often contain additives that sweeten the flavor, like aspartame, which can have other health consequences.
People can, on occasion, experience some side effects from consuming quinine due to sensitivity or allergy. 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.
Generally, though, tonic water is safe in small amounts - and the gin that’s typically mixed with it will have far more effect (and potentially, harm).
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, popular carbonated drink, to use in alcoholic beverages or simply enjoyed on its own. The quinine that gives tonic water its distinctive taste is generally harmless at the amounts present in an average serving - although, unfortunately, it’s unlikely to have any health benefits.
Tonic water may be laden with sugar or other additives that may stop it being entirely healthy, though - and the use of these can wreak havoc on blood sugar and be troublesome for those watching their weight, or else cause ingestion of substances and chemicals that people might rather go without drinking. So if possible, opt for tonic water that’s organic, low on sugar or sugar-free, and free of any artificial additives - or else choose an alternative to tonic water like soda water with bitters mixed in.