When most people think of tonic water, they think of it mixed with gin or vodka, and it might be challenging to identify precisely what it’s made of. But people have been drinking tonic water for a long time, and it has even been used for health purposes.
Simply put, tonic water is traditionally carbonated water mixed with quinine, a compound taken from the cinchona tree bark native to South America. 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.
There are no significant health benefits to drinking tonic water since the levels of quinine are so small. However, tonic water often contains sugar, fructose corn syrup, and other potentially unattractive additives – it’s these ingredients are unhealthy when consumed in excess.
Check out our article below for everything you need to know about this bitter beverage.
What Exactly Is Tonic Water?
Tonic water is made of two main ingredients: carbonated water and quinine. The latter gives tonic water its distinctive taste. People generally use this drink to mix into a gin and tonic, making 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.
However, tonic water often contains sugar and or sweeteners. Although not harmful in itself, drinking too much can cause harmful effects similar to drinking too much of other processed and sugary beverages.
What Does The Quinine In Tonic Water Do?
Quinine is a traditional treatment for malaria. It was also used as a treatment for arthritis and lupus, although less commonly.
Tonic water was originally invented when British officials stationed in 19th century India would mix quinine powder, prescribed as a malaria remedy, with soda and sugar.
Drunk as tonic water, quinine has minimal effect on the body. The levels are so small that its medicinal benefit is negligible, as its effects 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!
So, Is Tonic Water Good For You?
Aside from making delicious gin beverages, the benefits of tonic water do not extend beyond regular hydration. The quinine levels in tonic water are too low to offer any medicinal benefits. Although it’s called “tonic water” and sometimes thought to give health benefits, it’s just water with some flavoring.
A natural diet tonic water, free of any sugar and low on additives and will be the healthier alternative to its sugary counterpart, or soda. Additionally, tonic water can also have psychological benefits to people trying to cut back on alcohol as the bitterness will still shine through without the booze!
Does Drinking Tonic Water Prevent Leg Cramps?
While quinine has been used to treat nocturnal leg cramps or restless leg syndrome, drinking tonic water does not have therapeutic benefits.
Although some people still swear by this as a remedy, it simply doesn’t contain high enough levels of quinine to be effective. What’s more, it is typically recommended to avoid quinine for leg cramps entirely, as taking this compound for leg cramps is now heavily discouraged in the medical community.
Using quinine in order to treat leg conditions may lead to profound and life-threatening side effects, such as low blood platelets, heart arrhythmia, and chronic renal impairment. It is very risky. Anyone considering quinine as a remedy should consult a doctor for medical advice and seek other alternatives.
What Are The Risks Of Too Much Tonic Water?
Tonic water isn’t usually a health risk when drank occasionally. However, it is important to remember that it often comes loaded with sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Despite its innocent appearance, medicinal ingredients, and use of ‘tonic’ in the name, it’s decidedly not a product that’s geared towards health.
The average tonic water bottle contains around 30g of sugar, which is over six teaspoons worth! This not only packs a hefty caloric punch – particularly in combination with alcohol – but it’s also more than the needed daily sugar intake for adults.
As is now common knowledge, excess sugar can, of course, 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!
If you want tonic water and watching sugar levels is a goal, opt for the available diet options. However, diet variations will often contain additives that sweeten the flavor, like aspartame, which can have other health consequences.
On occasion, people can experience some side effects from consuming quinine due to sensitivity or allergy. Although quinine in tonic water is minimal, too much quinine consumption can cause diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramps, ringing in the ears, or vomiting, among other symptoms. If this occurs, 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 potential harm).
Who Should Avoid Drinking Tonic Water?
If you’ve previously had a bad reaction to tonic water, it isn’t advisable to drink it again. You should avoid sipping this beverage if:
- you are pregnant
- have low blood sugar
- have kidney or liver disease
- are taking medication (Check with your doctor first before consuming quinine)
- have an abnormal heart rhythm
What Are Some Healthier 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 commonly free of any sugar, flavor modifiers, or additives, too – so it’s a much healthier choice.
Suppose you want to use tonic water in a cocktail like a gin or a vodka tonic. In that case, consider mixing aromatic bitters with soda water to replicate the bitter taste without the quinine.
Sodas like lemon-lime can also substitute tonic water for a sweeter flavor that’s free of quinine. Although you have to bear in mind that lemon-lime sodas will likely contain a similar amount of sugar – and potentially more.
Tonic water is also often mixed with alcoholic drinks to make delicious cocktails. Most of the time, it’s paired with citrus fruits and would look like ‘bitter lemon’ or ‘bitter lime’ on the menu. Tonic water can also be used in seafood batters or desserts that have alcohol in them. If you’re avoiding quinine, it’s best to steer clear of this food and drinks.
The Bottom Line
Tonic water is a delicious, popular carbonated drink to use in alcoholic beverages or enjoyed on its own. The quinine that gives tonic water its distinctive taste is generally harmless at the amounts present in an average serving. However, it is unlikely to have many health benefits.
Despite its name, tonic water doesn’t have health benefits aside from hydration. And contrary to traditional beliefs, this bitter drink should not be used to treat leg cramps.
Tonic water may also be filled with sugar or other additives that may make it unhealthy. Drinking these can wreak havoc on blood sugar and be troublesome for those watching their weight, or else cause ingestion of substances and chemicals.
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.