Flavoured Sparkling Waters Are Trending—But Are They Actually Good for You?

More Canadians than ever are opting for cans of carbonated water with zero calories and zero sugar. But are these bubbly beverages good for you?

My après-work wind-down beverage isn’t a clichéd ad man’s whisky or a female founder’s chardonnay. It’s something that’s perhaps slightly less elegant, but—I’d contend—is just as satisfying: lemon-flavoured sparkling water. And it’s also the go-to beverage for many millennials like me.

In 2022, more than 1 billion U.S. dollars in sales of sparkling water were projected for Canada. That’s more than Canadians typically spend on sparkling wine each year, and potentially an explanation for the decrease in the country’s pop sales, compared to just under a decade ago.

LaCroix is, arguably, the trendiest and most popular flavoured sparkling water brand in Canada. (And yes, the company pronounces their brand name as “la croy,” which is maddening for anyone who has studied French.) Despite having been founded back in the 1980s (in La Crosse, Wisconsin, near the St. Croix River), the brand did not come to Canada until 2017, following a brand resurgence stateside.

Bubly, by PepsiCo, was launched in 2018 with the Canadian crooner Michael Bublé as a brand spokesman. Around the same time, the more traditional, green-glass brands Perrier and San Pellegrino soon came out with two new flavours of their popular fizzy waters (in 2017 and 2018, respectively). Then there’s Aha by Coca-Cola, which just launched in 2020. But no matter the brand, the offering is the same: seltzer with hints of a simple fruity flavour, made with zero calories and zero sugar.

These beverages have a suspiciously short list of very pronounceable ingredients, and they’re also a refreshing non-alcoholic drink option, which is alluring to the sober-by-choice set and anyone looking to cut back. (Which, it needs to be said, should be more of us than ever, now that the newest Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, encourage Canadians to limit their alcohol consumption  to two drinks a week or less.) In other words, now’s the best time to swap your bubbly for Bubly—or any of the many options on the market today.

As the empties pile up in the blue bin, though, it’s hard not to wonder whether this much sparkling water can possibly be as healthy, low-calorie and guilt-free as we’d like to believe. Is it too good to be true? We asked Tracey Frimpong, a registered dietitian in Toronto, to help us determine whether this theory holds, er, water.

The verdict on still versus sparkling

Carbonated water is just as hydrating—it can contribute to your daily recommended amount of H2O, says Frimpong. And “there is no evidence to say that carbonated water is unhealthy,” she says. “Carbonated water is similar to having a glass of water with your meal, which, as dietitians, we promote, since it’s important for overall health.” It’s definitely the healthier option when comparing it to other drinks, like pop, wine and juice, which can be high in sugars, sodium, calories and even saturated fats.

Seltzer has a similar nutritional profile to flat or still water, although it can contain some sodium to boost its taste. Frimpong says the sodium levels are not typically a big cause for concern. “One can or bottle of carbonated water may contain less than 100 mg of sodium,” she says—this is equivalent to about a dozen Kettle Brand potato chips. (This amount is even okay for those who have hypertension and must follow a DASH or low-sodium diet, she says.)

LaCroix and Bubly contain zero sodium, and Perrier’s sparkling waters contain a very minimal amount. San Pellegrino’s sparkling water, called Essenza, contains just 10 mg per 330 mL can, and AHA contains 5 mg per 355 mL can—the same amount in about half of a single kettle chip. (Cans of club soda are usually about 75 mg.)

When shopping for carbonated water, be on the lookout for posers in equally attractive packaging. There are many new trendy cans on store shelves that look like fruity bubbly water (they’re delicious, and often infused with buzzy ingredients like collagen and adaptogens), but are actually just made with carbonated water, so they could also contain a fair amount of sugar. If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, particularly if you’re living with diabetes, Frimpong says it’s best to avoid these.

Watch your daily dose

Frimpong recommends having just one or two servings a day. Sparkling water contains carbon dioxide, and when that meets saliva, it transforms into carbonic acid and lowers the pH level of your mouth—which can be somewhat erosive to teeth (more on that below).

Speaking of carbon dioxide: There’s a big misconception that carbonated water, which is acidic, can cause ulcers or change your blood pH. Again, not a concern: “If there is too much carbon dioxide in the body, our lungs and kidneys filter out the excess,” says Frimpong.

Mind the ingredient list

Flavoured sparkling water typically includes “natural flavours,” a term with a definition that’s actually a little murky. We know that natural flavours are obtained from natural essences or extracts such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, but they could also include preservatives and other additives. This doesn’t necessarily make natural flavours a concern, we just don’t know enough about them yet.

Another question stems from a 2020 Consumer Reports analysis that found many carbonated beverages contain “measurable amounts of PFAS,” which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are synthetic chemicals added to tons of products (like non-stick pans) and they’ve been found to affect the body’s natural hormone production and potentially contribute to cancer. Frimpong isn’t raising the alarm, though. “One study is not able to provide enough direction in terms of consumption of PFAS,” she says. She points out that the Consumer Reports study was what’s called “simple testing,” which means it was executed by researchers who may not have been formally trained, and therefore may not be accurate.

Factor in burps and bloating

“Any carbonated beverage is capable of causing bloating and gas because carbon dioxide is in the digestive tract,” says Frimpong. This could be particularly unappealing for people who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), as it can increase the amount of gas, causing discomfort and even pain in the abdominal area.

You may also notice an increase in burps or hiccups while consuming sparkling water. Frimpong says the carbonation can also help keep things moving, which might be uncomfortable, but is ultimately good for your system.

A drink that boosts digestive health? Can’t get more millennial than that.

Consider your teeth

Good news: Carbonated water isn’t as bad for your teeth as you may think, says Toronto dentist Deirdre Denis. Compared to pop, sparkling water is minimally erosive, and it doesn’t contain sugar, which causes tooth decay.

Denis explains that your can of fizzy water is made by adding pressurized carbon dioxide into water, which does make seltzer somewhat acidic. “It would be logical to assume that more acid means more erosion to enamel and damage to teeth,” says Denis. “However, research shows that the average pH of nine different brands of sparkling water has an average pH of 4.5, which is less than other carbonated beverages.” (Flat or still water has a pH of 6.5-8.5, on a scale of 1-14, with 7 as a neutral midpoint.)

It’s true that the citrus flavours of seltzer will have a higher acidic level than non-citrus, says Denis. That doesn’t mean you have to choose a sub-par flavour (back off, cranberry), but you might opt for a reusable straw if you’re consuming multiple cans a day.

Drinking plenty of normal old tap water will also help, says Denis. In fact, increasing your daily intake of water helps keep teeth and gums healthy, as it moistens your mouth and helps flush down gunk and bacteria. If you have fluoridated water, that’s even better, says Denis, as it can help fight against cavities.

Denis also recommends using an enamel-strengthening toothpaste and going for routine dental check-ups and cleanings.

Next: Is Drinking Your Greens as Healthy as Eating Them?

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada