The Low Down on Sparkling Waters

January 19, 2021

Bubly? Poland Spring Sparkling Water? LaCroix? Spindrift? Perrier?  You’ve probably heard of a number of these sparkling waters and maybe even tried a few.  It’s a booming industry, as people look to replace sodas with something a bit healthier. The question is, are these alternatives actually healthy? With mixed information and myths abounding, it can often be hard to decipher what is true and what is not.  Let’s take a deep dive and talk about it here.

First off, what makes a water “sparkling” or carbonated?  Carbonation can occur naturally, such as in the case of Perrier, a mineral water pulled from the Vergèze spring in France.  It can also be created artificially, as in the case of many of the other brands on the market today, by infusing plain, flat water with carbon dioxide (CO2). This infusion of CO2 is the same process that is used for soft drinks and has beneficial properties.  In addition to the pleasing sensory effect, carbonation keeps soft drinks safe from bacteria and microbes.   The difference between sodas and sparkling waters, however, lies in the other ingredients.  Sodas (even diet varieties) are often loaded with sugar, sugar substitutes, chemicals, dyes, and caffeine. Carbonated water, however, is typically just water with added CO2. Some varieties do have added fruit juices for flavoring, so paying attention to the ingredient list is important. 

Understanding that carbon dioxide, in and of itself, is not harmful is a helpful piece of information when selecting which beverage to drink. We see, hear, and feel the results of carbonation when a beverage is opened or poured – the familiar pop, fizz, and effervescent bubbles that tickle your nose as you bring it to your mouth; but what about the effects of carbonation inside your body?

Easy Carbonation Absorption
The carbon dioxide in a carbonated beverage is readily and rapidly absorbed through the wall of the gastrointestinal system. But not all of the CO2 originally in the drink actually gets to the stomach. Some is lost in the fizz of opening the can or bottle, and some may combine with swallowed air to cause a belch.

The truth is, most CO2 in the beverage typically doesn’t reach the digestive tract. The amount that does arrive there is quickly absorbed. In the process, it also enhances the absorption of the liquid that contains it, which causes the gastrointestinal tract to empty at a faster than usual rate. This helps to account for the long-time belief that carbonation can promote digestion and ease nausea. As with just about anything though, too much of a good thing can end up not being good.  If you drink a lot of sparkling water and feel yourself getting bloated, make sure to mix some plain, flat water into your diet as well.

Carbonation Carried to the Lungs
Once the CO2 is absorbed in the body, it goes into the bloodstream, where most of it is carried to the lungs for exhalation. The CO2 is transported in one of three ways. Approximately 10 percent dissolves in the blood. About 20 percent becomes bound to hemoglobin. The rest, roughly 70 percent, is carried by red blood cells in the form of bicarbonate, which occurs when CO2 combines with water contained in the red blood cells.

Normal Organic Carbonation Processes
Most of the CO2 in our blood is produced not by carbonated beverages, but by the body’s conversion of carbohydrates, protein, and fat into energy. In other words, having CO2 moving through the blood is a routine metabolic action.

When we exercise, we can feel the effects of CO2 in our bloodstream. As your workout builds in intensity, the level of CO2 in your blood rises because you are generating more energy. Your respiratory system responds by eliminating more CO2 and taking in more oxygen — which you experience as breathing harder. Whether exercising or at rest, a healthy body’s natural chemical reactions efficiently remove carbon dioxide from the blood. This maintains a normal acid/base balance.

Myths Debunked

While it’s true that the carbonation process for beverages produces carbonic acid, this is a weak acid that does not raise the acid level of the blood and cannot dissolve bone or leach calcium from your bones.  The carbonic acid produced also does not cause decay of tooth enamel, as some people suggest. Flavored sparkling waters can have higher acidity levels because of the added fruit juices, putting them on par with orange juice in the corrosive effect on tooth enamel, so checking the ingredient label is a wise idea. Carbonation also does not have any impact on the lumpy-appearing fat, known as cellulite, which is simply body fat pulled tight by the connective tissue that attaches skin to underlying muscle. Myths to the contrary are just that — myths.

The Takeaway

As with most things in life, carbonation is not a bad thing in moderation. Carbonated waters are just as efficient at hydrating your body as plain water and can offer a welcome alternative to plain tap or spring water.  If the extra fizz and bubble are what it takes to increase your daily intake of water, have at it! Keeping properly hydrated is crucial to good health!

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