Sparkling water: Healthy alternative or millennial fad?

As the popularity of sparkling waters grows, many wonder if it represents a fresh turning point or a crisp new snake oil.

woman drinks glass of water

Is soda water healthy?

Photo by Daria Shevtsova / Pexel
  • Sparkling waters are en vogue as a healthy, refreshing alternative to soft drinks and alcohol.
  • Some claim sparkling water has injurious effects, such as reducing bone mineral density, but research shows such claims are overstated or outright myths.
  • Not all sparkling waters are created equal, though. While some are just as hydrating as plain water, others can be unhealthy if not consumed in moderation.

Sparkling waters are the latest in health chic, providing all the fizzy refreshment of a soft drink with none of those wicked calories. Today, Americans drink as much as 170 million gallons of sparkling water each year, and its popularity has surged to the point that The Guardian dubbed it "little short of a religion among millennials."

As with any health food trend, questions of its validly abound. Articles and social media posts have suggested that consuming carbonated beverages could lead to a myriad of ailments such as zapping bones of needed minerals, destroying tooth enamel, inflaming irritable bowel syndrome, promoting weight gain, and (of course) causing cancer.

But we needn't rely on hearsay. There's a fair amount of research to help us figure out whether these drinks are good or bad for our health. Turns out, the answer greatly depends on your bubbly beverage of choice.

Classifying sparkling waters

Is "sparkling water" soda water healthy?

Calling it "sparkling water" doesn't tell you much about what's inside.

Photo: Flickr

Before we can determine if sparkling waters are salubrious or not, we need to determine what exactly qualifies as a sparkling water.

Carbonated water describes water with carbon dioxide dissolved into it. Carbon dioxide can be introduced through natural processes, or by artificially injecting the gas into water while it is under pressure. The addition of CO₂ gives these beverages their satisfying hiss-pop when opened and characteristic effervescence.

Here are some popular classifications of fizzy waters:

Seltzer water. In its simplest form, seltzer water is water with carbonation. That's it. Seltzers may include natural flavors, but they do not contain additives like sugar or sodium.

Club soda. Club soda has more in common with seltzer than Coca-Cola. These drinks add ingredients such as sodium bicarbonate or potassium sulfate to carbonated water to elicit a minerally taste. They do not contain sugar. Good with scotch but won't do much for red wine stains. (That's an old wives' tale.)

Tonic water. Tonic water, on the other hand, has more in common with soda than seltzer. Its ingredients include sugar, citric acid, preservatives, and quinine for flavoring. Interestingly, quinine was the world's first anti-malarial drug and adds a property to tonic water that makes it glow under a blacklight. Cool party trick, but not for the health conscious.

Mineral water. The Food and Drug Administration defines mineral water as coming from an underground source with a minimum of 250 parts per million of total dissolved solids. These dissolved elements, such as calcium or magnesium, must come from the source and cannot be added later. Carbonation may be induced to make sparkling mineral water.

Like carbonated water, "sparkling water" is an umbrella term for waters that have undergone the carbonation process. While the two are interchangeable, you're much more likely to find bottles of sparkling water on store shelves. Carbonated water just lacks that ballyhoo lyricism and, as such, has mostly been relegated to naming an ingredient rather than a standalone beverage—it's the main ingredient in Pepsi.

Given its catchall nature, "sparkling water" covers an immense range of drinks. La Croix, for example, sells itself as a sparkling water but is a seltzer with natural flavors. Other beverages sporting the label, however, may contain additives like preservatives, sweeteners, food coloring, and even acids or juice concentrates for flavor.

Sparkle without the soda

Sparkling water's noxious effects have been overplayed. Claims that carbonated beverages lead to osteoporosis and other bone diseases stem from a misunderstanding of the research. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that it was cola, not other carbonated beverages, that was associated with lowered bone mineral density in older women, not men.

Celeste Robb-Nicholson, M.D. and editor in chief of Harvard Women's Health Watch, noted equivalent results in other studies. Cola's caffeine was considered a potential culprit for the lower bone mineral density, but the studies cited a need for further research.

What about irritable bowel syndrome? Carbonated waters have been known to cause gastrointestinal distress in people who are sensitive to carbonation, but they are not a known cause of the syndrome. In fact, one study found that carbonated water can improve indigestion and ease constipation.

Finally, let's consider weight gain. Here, your sparking water of choice matters.

Artificial sweeteners are incredibly poor for your health. Studies of diet soft drinks have linked them to an increased risk of dementia, transforming gut bacteria, and stimulating appetite. An American Heart Association study even found that people "who drank a diet soda every day had a 61 percent higher risk of vascular events than those who reported no soda drinking."

Consumers who drink sparkling waters with sodium or artificial sweeteners like those found in diet soda may find a similar increase in appetite and thus weight gain. Drinking sparkling waters without these additives will remove this potential risk.

In fact, an article reviewed by Very Well Senior Medical Advisor Dr. Richard N. Fogoros noted that plain carbonated water is just as hydrating as regular water, and mineral waters with calcium and bicarbonate have been shown to improve hydration during exercise.

Acidic considerations

At pH levels below the critical pH (generally 5.5) teeth begin to demineralize. While sparkling waters do fall below the critical pH, most are must closer than many other popular beverages, like soda or orange juice.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is one criticism of sparkling water that holds true: It has the potential to damage your teeth.

Carbonic acid is a byproduct of the reaction between water and CO₂, meaning any carbonated water, even plain seltzer water, is acidic. Acidic liquids—that is, anything below a 7 on the pH scale—eat away at tooth enamel, opening one up to cavities and other dental nasties. Luckily for sparkle enthusiasts, carbonic acid is relatively weak.

The American Dental Association lists Birmingham, Alabama's, municipal water as having a neutral pH level of 7.2, while sparkling mineral water Perrier has a pH of 5.25. For further comparison, a Starbucks medium roast has a pH of 5.11 and Simply orange juice 3.78. Beverages that incorporate the much more acidic citric acid are even worse. Coca-Cola Classic and Pepsi, for example, have pH levels of 2.37 and 2.39 respectively.

One study comparing the erosive potential of sparkling mineral water to soft drinks found the former nonthreatening by comparison.

"Dissolution levels with all of the mineral waters were very low and for several still waters were undetectable," the researchers wrote. "Sparkling mineral waters showed slightly greater dissolution than still waters, but levels remained low and were of the order of one hundred times less than the comparator soft drinks."

Speaking on the subject, dentist Andrew Swiatowicz noted that the danger seltzer poses for your teeth depends a lot on your oral health history, how much acid and sugar is in your diet, and the amount of fluoride you receive from toothpaste, tap water, and mouth wash.

"For an average, healthy person, carbonated, sugar-free beverages are not going to be a main cavity-causing factor," he told The Atlantic. "If you are at all concerned, you can always dilute the carbonated water with regular water, or even just swish with regular water after."

Effervescent allure

Sparkling water can be surprisingly good for you, assuming you pick the right one. The fresh raspberries and a mint sprig shouldn't be skipped either.

Sparkling water can be surprisingly good for you, assuming you pick the right one. The fresh raspberries and a mint sprig shouldn't be skipped either.

Photo: Pexel

If you want to bypass these dietary concerns, you could drink only flat, pH-balanced water. After all, you and every organism on Earth evolved to require this life-sustaining substance in some fashion. But this approach, while certainly healthy, feels bland and boring. There's just something people find appealing about a crisp, bubbly drink.

Sure, there are risks, but these risks are no more severe than any other non-water drink and can be mitigated by making careful choices:

  1. Read the label.
  2. Drink only seltzers or mineral waters with no additives. The additives of soda water, for example, may not add calories, but they do add sodium. If you're like the average American, you consume roughly 1,000 more milligrams of sodium than recommended a day. Why add to it?
  3. If you find plain carbonated water to be meh, add your own flavorings. Squeeze in a wedge of lemon, mix in some blended berries, or muddle some fresh herbs. This will ensure you get natural sugars in addition to needed nutrients.
  4. Drink in moderation. If you're worried about tooth decay, enjoy your sparkling water with a meal or bypass your teeth with a reusable straw.

Not all sparkling waters are created equal, and the zeal for some of its more illustrious name brands can certainly annoy. But as an alternative to a soft drink or evening beer, sparkling water is a health trend that should stay.

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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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