Is drinking sparkling water a healthy alternative? Here’s what science has to say

This beverage is effervescent, refreshing and free of sugar and calories

Sparkling water
Sparkling water consumption accounts for 3% of all bottled water.Tetiana Yatsenko (Getty Images/Westend61)

In the last decade, soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages have fallen into disrepute because of their negative health effects, including but not limited to the fact that they promote obesity, leading to a change in consumer demand. Now we are seeking flavored waters and products that offer nutritional quality and greater health benefits, without sacrificing good taste.

Sparkling water is one of the options available to us. But is it worth switching to sparkling water? This alternative certainly has its benefits: it maintains its bubbles, is more refreshing (which helps to quench thirst) and does not contain any sugar or calories.

The populations of some European countries drink sparkling water on a regular basis. Although its consumption has increased in other places, such as Spain, it remains a far less common choice: it accounts for 3% of the bottled water market, which translates into 1.91 liters per person per year.

Rich in minerals

Sparkling water is water that has dissolved carbonic acid, which accounts for its slightly bitter taste and fizz. As with plain water, there are different types of the bubbly stuff: carbonated water and water that contains calcium, sulfate, magnesium, sodium or chloride.

Among its distinctive features, the mineral concentration of sparkling water appears to be higher than normal, and it has a higher osmolarity (total concentration of substances dissolved in a liquid) and basic pH (higher than that of pure water, which is neutral). This mineral content varies by brand and the geographical area where the water is sourced.

But does this affect its ability to hydrate? Although it has not been sufficiently researched, sparkling water seems to do so as well as bottled still water or tap water. It might even hydrate better than other types of water precisely because of the abundance of minerals in it.

In 2009, the World Health Organization highlighted the importance of the composition of the water we drink and emphasized the need to promote the consumption of highly mineralized products; this helps us meet our nutritional needs. Sparkling water goes beyond merely meeting the WHO recommendation.

Sparkling water’s real health effects

Although knowledge of the beneficial properties of certain waters dates back to Hippocrates (460 B.C.-370 B.C.), the first epidemiological data to link its consumption with (good) health did not appear until the 20th century.

These positive effects seem to be related to the amount of minerals in sparkling water. Although additional studies are needed, it seems that drinking sparkling water has some advantages, though there are some caveats:

1. Digestive or gastrointestinal function. Several studies suggest that sparkling water improves swallowing in healthy subjects, and even in patients who have dysphagia (difficulty swallowing). It also relieves dyspepsia (stomach discomfort). In addition, it can help reduce constipation and produce a feeling of satiety, which might encourage weight loss.

But there is also evidence to the contrary. Studies in vitro and in healthy young people have found that drinking sparkling water increases ghrelin levels (the hormone responsible for increasing appetite) and, therefore, food intake. It may also promote distension of the abdomen and gastric discomfort, possibly because of the effects of carbonic acid. In short, more research is needed.

2. Urinary function and prevention of kidney stones. An Australian study indicates that daily consumption of sparkling water may prevent the formation of kidney stones. The bicarbonate content and increased alkaline load and urinary pH prevents the accumulation of calcium oxalates. In the long term, water rich in calcium, magnesium and bicarbonate is advantageous in this regard. For that reason, one should read bottle labels carefully.

However, on the negative side, another study indicates that consuming carbonated beverages (including sparkling water) increases the risk of stress incontinence or overactive bladder in women over 40 years old.

3. Decreased cardiovascular risk. Science supports the importance of proper hydration in maintaining metabolic health, reducing cardiovascular risk and metabolic syndrome, and preventing hypertension. Specifically, different studies indicate that waters rich in minerals, including those that incorporate carbonic acid, are beneficial for regulating blood pressure. This is due to their alkaline effect and the magnesium and calcium they contain, which improves vasoconstriction mechanisms and heart rate.

At the same time, some research has found that drinking a liter of sparkling water a day appears to reduce cardiometabolic risk markers (cholesterol and glucose). However, studies have not found any change in triglyceride levels, weight or body mass index.

4. Bone and dental health. According to the evidence, drinking one liter of this beverage daily does not affect bone remodeling in postmenopausal women. On the contrary, carbonated water seems to reduce support for dentition at an early age because it is not fluoridated. However, it should be noted that carbonated and non-carbonated water’s potential for dental erosion is 100 times lower than that of soft drinks.

In light of the above, more research is needed to fully understand the health effects of sparkling water, depending on its mineral composition, geographical origin and brand. Still, we can consider it to be a healthier alternative to low mineralized water and, of course, a better option than sugary drinks and soda.

Sofía Pérez Calahorra has a PhD in Health Sciences. She is a professor in a nursing degree program and a postdoctoral researcher at IIS Aragón and University of Zaragoza.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

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