If you love the taste of tonic water, recent research shows you might just have a bigger brain than the rest of us. Hwang L-D, et al. (2019). Associations between brain structure and perceived intensity of sweet and bitter tastes. DOI: 10.1016/j.bbr.2019.01.046 Now that you have a fun icebreaker to use with a gin and tonic in hand, let's find out if it's a-OK to imbibe.
Is tonic water good for you?
The short answer: No.
In fact, “tonic water” is a bit of a misnomer. Sure, the bubbly drink starts out as carbonated water, and then quinine - a bitter alkaloid once used to treat malaria - is added. Meyer CG, et al. (2004). Editorial: Gin tonic revisited. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-3156.2004.01357.x
Nothing wrong with that, but most store-bought varieties also add fruit extracts and sugar. When you add 4 ounces of tonic water to a standard cocktail, you're sipping on 11 grams of sugar - just as much as if you'd poured 4 ounces of Sprite.
What the science says
We already know that too much sugar is bad news. A 2019 study showed that the more sugar-sweetened drinks we consume, the greater our risk of early death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, particularly among women. Malik VS, et al. (2019). Long-term consumption of sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages and risk of mortality in US adults. DOI: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.118.037401
Sometimes, the sweetness in tonic water comes from high-fructose corn syrup, but the news there isn't much better. In 2015, researchers found a link between drinking syrup-filled beverages and a greater risk of heart disease. Stanhope KL, et al. (2015). A dose-response study of consuming high-fructose corn syrup-sweetened beverages on lipid/lipoprotein risk factors for cardiovascular disease in young adults. DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100461
Tonic water seems like it would be in a different class than the soft drinks we think of when we hear those kinds of statistics. But if you take a gander at the nutrition labels on a bottle of tonic water and a bottle of Coke, you'll notice the two have an almost identical number of calories.
Obviously, most of us consume Coke and tonic water differently - maybe drinking a whole can of the former but using just a few ounces of the latter to complement a cocktail. So, while that first gin and tonic isn't something to worry about, the added sugar becomes a concern when you're on your third or fourth.
What about diet tonic water?
Unfortunately, making healthier choices isn't as simple as opting for diet tonic water. Calorie-free sweeteners like aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet'N Low) are a bit scandalous in the health world.
Some researchers believe that artificial sweeteners prep your body for a sugar fix and then don't deliver. According to a 2010 study, if you're left craving sweets after you slurp down a soda, you're more likely to eat - and keep eating. Yang Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings. //www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892765/
In 2013, researchers decided to test this theory. They had 200 people replace their sugary drinks with diet varieties or water for 6 months. The conclusion? Diet-beverage drinkers actually ate fewer desserts than the water drinkers, so there's that. Piernas C, et al. (2013). Does diet-beverage intake affect dietary consumption patterns? Results from the Choose Healthy Options Consciously Everyday (CHOICE) randomized clinical trial. DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.112.048405
A 2017 review noted that the long-term impact of sweeteners is not yet known. And they do little in the way of weight loss. In fact, the opposite may be true: Sometimes diet-beverage drinkers gain weight and have an increased risk of chronic diseases. Azad MB, et al. (2017). Nonnutritive sweeteners and cardiometabolic health: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies. DOI: 10.1503/cmaj.161390
What to use instead
We're all for a classy gin and tonic now and again. But instead of tonic water, maybe reach for seltzer, which is usually straight water with bubbles.
Add a squeeze of lemon to enhance the flavor. And if you're using the seltzer as a cocktail mixer, toss in a few bitters to mimic the taste of quinine. Cheers!