Tonic has long been a happy hour staple, there to dilute vodka, gin, and other spirits into easy, two-ingredient cocktails. On the surface, tonic-based drinks sound relatively healthy. (You know, as far as something with booze in it goes.) It doesn’t have the sugar bomb reps that margaritas and daiquiris carry, and its name implies that it’s essentially H20—and we all know how important hydration is. Plus, just the word tonic sounds healthy, right?
With the rise of sparkling waters and seltzer, more people are starting to wonder about tonic as a bev outside of happy hour, too. Sparkling water, seltzer, club soda, and tonic water all seem similar; the drinks themselves may be clear but the difference between them is more murky.
Here, registered dietitian Chelsey Amer, RD, explains exactly what tonic water is, the tonic water benefits, and what to know about the drink. Bottom’s up!
What exactly is tonic water anyway?
“Tonic water is a combination of carbonated water, quinine, sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and sometimes flavorings,” Amer says. Never heard of quinine? It’s a bitter compound that’s sourced from cinchona tree bark. Cinchona trees are primarily grown in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, and parts of Africa. Originally, quinine was used in these regions medicinally as a way to fight malaria. But its bitter taste is what made it a popular ingredient for tonic.
In case it wasn’t clear already, tonic water is a bit different from club soda and sparkling water. While tonic water is made from the aforementioned combo of carbonated water, quinine, sugar or high fructose corn syrup and (sometimes) flavorings, club soda is carbonated water with added minerals such as sodium bicarbonate, sodium citrate, and potassium sulfate. Sparkling water is simply carbonated water. If the carbonation is naturally occurring, it’s sparkling water. If the carbonation is artificial, it’s technically seltzer. (But at that point, kind of feels like splitting hairs…)
“Tonic water is not the same as carbonated water or club soda,” Amer reiterates. “Although it sounds like water, tonic water actually contains a decent amount of sugar. One serving—11 fluid ounces—of tonic water contains 30 grams of sugar.” (The goal is to keep added sugar under 25 grams a day, according to the American Heart Association.)
Got all that? Now let’s get into the tonic water benefits—and if they outweigh the nutritional cons.
Tonic water benefits and risks
About the only benefit of tonic water is that since it is a liquid, it can be hydrating. But Amer says that since it’s so high in sugar, the nutritional cons outweigh the tonic water benefits. “I don’t recommend choosing beverages with added sugar to meet your daily hydration quota,” she says. Basically, don’t use it as a water alternative. But if you like drinking tonic water, like in your favorite cocktails, she says to enjoy it in moderation.
Again, one serving of tonic water exceeds the amount of added sugar recommended for the whole day. There are also diet tonic waters on the market that use artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or saccharin. Unfortunately, Amer says these ingredients come with their own downsides. “Studies find [artificial sweeteners] can trick your brain into increasing sweet cravings,” she says. Artificial sweeteners are also associated with an increased risk for diabetes.
Watch the video below for more facts about sugar everyone should know:
Similarly, the high-fructose corn syrup (a fructose-glucose liquid sweetener) that can be in tonic water isn’t great. Like sugar, consuming high-fructose corn syrup regularly is linked to obesity and metabolism issues.
There are also important risks associated with consuming too much tonic water. “As with any source of added sugar, over-consuming it can lead to avoidable chronic diseases, like heart disease, and diabetes,” Amer says.
You’re also likely not getting any meaningful health benefits from quinine, because it’s present in such small amounts in modern-day tonic water, says Amer. “When over-consumed [it] can lead to unwanted side effects like nausea, stomach cramps, and more.”
The verdict on tonic water
As you can see, the health and nutritional benefits of tonic water are pretty slim. However, Amer says, like almost everything in life, it can still be enjoyed in moderation. So if gin and tonics are your drink of choice, go for it. But if you do want to make a healthier swap, she recommends switching out your tonic for sparkling water, which has the carbonated fizz—without the sugar.
And if the reason you were reaching for tonic water was because you find regular H20 boring, there are simple, healthy ways to jazz up your hydration habits, too. One way is to experiment with different infusions, using fruit (like berries, lemon, or lime), veggies (like cucumber), and herbs (such as mint). Nature is abundance with options, and when you turn to nature in these ways, you’ll be getting even more health benefits, not less.