There are perhaps no other soft drinks that are so divisive than tonic water. Some drink it quite often, others just occasionally and as part of cocktails. And some people won’t touch it. Its taste is the main culprit for this divide. Real tonic water contains quinine, which was once the only medicine used to treat malaria. And it is bitter, extremely bitter. This is one of the reasons tonic water has just a very small amount of it – up to 83 ppm (parts per million), according to FDA regulation.
But is tonic water good for your health? Does downing up to 20 milligrams of quinine in every glass without health consequences?
The short history of tonic water
We have the British Empire to thank for the invention of tonic water. Stationed in India in the 19th century, officers found quinine – the general cure and prophylactic to malaria – hard to swallow on its own. So, to make it easier to go down, they mixed the bitter powder with sparkling water, sugar and lemon. This tastier way to fight malaria has proven to be popular, which led to the creation of the first commercial tonic water in 1858. And the addition of gin to create one of the tastiest cocktails of the world helped a lot, too.
Quinine, one of the last natural ingredients in beverages
While this might sound surprising in a world filled with synthetic flavors, most quinine used in beverages is natural. The substance is found in the barks of several tree species. There have been attempts to synthesize it, but these have never become commercially viable.
Quinine has its risks
Although today it’s used as a flavoring agent, quinine is still medicine. Most commercial tonic waters contain just small amounts of it, which – if consumed in moderation – is without any significant effect on the body. Consider this: tonic water has about 20 mg of it in a glass while the therapeutic dose is much larger, between 500 and 1,000 mg. The original tonic water was nothing but a high dose of quinine and sparkling water and was consumed for medical purposes. Today’s commercial product doesn’t need such a high concentration of the active agent.
When consumed in small doses, quinine can help in case of indigestion. Tonic water is bitter, so it is thought to help digestion of foods high in fat. Besides, it is often used to prevent nocturnal leg cramps, although the health authorities do not recommend this use.
But quinine can have quite a few side effects if consumed in larger quantities by people sensitive to it. The symptoms can include fatigue, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), nausea and vomiting, and in more severe cases irregular heart rhythm, skin rash and bleeding.
Go easy on the sugar!
While the side effects of quinine can occur with any sensitive individual, not even long-term consumption of tonic water has been shown to have negative effects. But consider this: the average tonic water contains just as much sugar as any other soft drink. You might not feel it from the start, as it also comes with a sour and a bitter component. So, consuming large amounts of tonic water, in the long run, can leave its mark on your waistline.
But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t down a gin and tonic once in a while…