It seems that everywhere we turn, we’re encouraged to drink more water. That makes sense since adults in America are, on average, chronically dehydrated. So, it comes as little surprise that more and more options for more palatable drinks have bubbled up all over.
There are sparkling waters, seltzers and tonic waters, for starters. And then there are soft drinks (both regular and diet), beer, champagne and other sparkling wines. But when it comes to your health how do these bubbly beverages compare to good old still, unflavored water? Is a can of LaCroix seltzer the equivalent of a glass of tap water? And what are the effects of regularly drinking multiple bubbly beverages a day?
First, let’s acknowledge that alcoholic beverages—carbonated or not—have specific health risks when consumed in excess, partly due to the alcohol content and also because of the empty calories. Soda, on the other hand, has zero redeemable qualities. The sugar content of regular soft drinks makes them dentally detrimental, and they’re full of calories with no nutrients. Diet sodas ditch the sugar and calories, but artificial sweeteners are problematic, particularly for individuals trying to lose weight. For our purposes here, it’s a good idea to consume the above beverages in moderation, for reasons entirely unrelated to their fizziness.
This still leaves us with a bevy of low- or no-calorie, low- or no-sugar carbonated water options. If you want to cut back on soda or booze, sparkling water can be a healthier alternative when it comes to alcohol and sugar. However, as you may have already guessed, not all carbonated water options are created equally.
For one thing, strictly among the drinks you may think of as “sparkling water,” there are variations.
- Club soda
Contains mineral-like ingredients to enhance flavor
Does not contain sodium
- Tonic water
Has added quinine (an alkalide which was used as a treatment for malaria and leg cramps in the nineteenth century, but is no longer used for medicinal purposes; the amount found in tonic water is a very low dose) and a more bitter flavor
- Mineral water
Comes from a natural spring and contains the minerals and carbonation of that spring (some brands add their own bubbles)
Additionally, there are flavored varieties of sparkling water, which can contain citric acid along with sweeteners and even caffeine. (This is the category that includes the brightly colored cans you see people enjoying on Instagram.)
Sparkling waters with natural flavors may not have any calories or ingredients that immediately raise red flags, but they typically contain citric acid (and possibly other sweeteners). This gives flavored sparkling water a lower pH than regular water, which is bad news for your tooth enamel. If you’re concerned about the health of your pearly whites, you may want to enjoy flavored sparkling water as an occasional treat. That said, unflavored carbonated water is a much better choice than sodas or flavored sparkling waters. Carbonated water with no added flavors still contains a small amount of carbonic acid, so it’s not as neutral as flat water, but even if you drink it regularly, it’s a weak acid and unlikely to damage your teeth.
What about carbonated drinks and weight? That discussion is a bit more complex. You might have heard that carbonated water can cause weight gain or cellulite, and a small 2017 study on rats and humans shows there may be a connection between drinking fizzy drinks (regardless of sugar or flavors added) and increased production of ghrelin, the appetite hormone that tells both rats and humans it’s time to eat. This doesn’t mean the bubbly water itself causes weight gain or cellulite, but if the fizz encourages you to eat more than you would otherwise, it could be a factor. It’s worth noting that due to this study’s small size, more research is needed to make any substantial claims.
Now, let’s discuss some more cheerful findings.
Research suggests carbonated water is not likely to harm the throat or stomach of most healthy individuals. In fact, bubbly beverages are often used as a cure for an upset stomach (which explains why so many old fashioned pharmacies had soda fountains in them, right?).
If you feel a life without a flavored sparkling water (or three) each day is a life not worth living, here are a few tips to help mitigate the potential risks:
- Use regular flat water to dilute your flavored sparkling selection.
- Swish flat water in your mouth after you drink sparkling water.
- Add fresh fruit or herbs to unflavored sparkling water.
- Sip through a straw to better protect your teeth.
Bottom line: In and of themselves, bubbles aren’t a bad thing. But when it comes to dental health and avoiding weight gain, you’re better off swigging an unflavored sparkling water than soda.