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What is Tonic Water?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Tonic water is a carbonated beverage that derives its somewhat bitter taste from the addition of quinine, which also makes it glow when exposed to UV light. It usually is flavored with lemon or lime and lots of sugar, and it often contains caffeine. This beverage is frequently used in mixed cocktails, most famously in gin and tonic, although vodka with tonic water also is popular. Tonic water also can be used with sweet alcohols, such as vermouth, to produce a balanced taste.


First patented during the mid-19th century in England, this beverage owes its popularity to an urban legend based on the properties of quinine. Quinine is a chemical compound that occurs naturally in the bark of the cinchona tree, which is grown in the tropical forests of South America. During the 17th century, after it had been taken to Europe, quinine became recognized as a relatively safe treatment for malaria. The British occupation of India, for example, was helped by quinine because its use allowed the British officers to stay healthy instead of succumbing to malaria.

Masking Quinine's Taste

One drawback of the use of quinine is that it is widely considered to taste bad. British soldiers would often take this bitter medication in a diluted form. The preferred mixture in which to dilute the quinine was a great deal of gin, some lemon or lime and a little sugar. When quinine-containing tonic water was first produced, many people concluded that a few gin and tonics would be good for one's health and help prevent malaria.

Not Effective as a Malaria Treatment

Quinine, however, has not been found to prevent malaria, it merely can treat it. A normal amount of tonic water also contains too little quinine to effectively treat malaria. Someone would need to drink at least 60 fluid ounces (1.77 liters) of tonic water a day — or the equivalent of 10 gin and tonics — to treat malaria. Chemically produced quinine in much larger doses is the preferred treatment for reducing fever and other malarial symptoms. In most cases, malaria also needs to be treated with antibiotics to produce full recovery.

Although tonic water lacks enough quinine to reduce the symptoms of malaria in normal amount, it still is known as a tonic — meaning that it is essentially healthful — because of its use of quinine. There is no known health benefit from consuming tonic water, which has a sugar content that is equivalent to that of most sodas. Nevertheless, the name has stuck, and the drink remains popular.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon332135 — On Apr 26, 2013

To anon141021: Several brands of diet tonic water contain no aspartame. Check the labels. I drink diet tonic water with no aspartame and a slice of lemon and my leg cramps after a long bicycle ride have completely gone away.

By anon282733 — On Jul 31, 2012

How long do I need to expose it to UV light?

By anon272101 — On May 30, 2012

Canada Dry is the best.

By anon242978 — On Jan 25, 2012

I have been drinking low calorie tonic water and a little gin for over two months, and I have found that my period cramps are not as bad this month. I haven't taken the same amount of pain killers as before. I only had to take the really heavily prescribed pain killers twice, whereas before, when I had really bad cramps, I was taking my prescribed drugs every four hours and this was then starting to cause severe effects on my stomach. I was told that gin and tonic was really good for your kidneys, so I started drinking this. I took a small amount of gin but made it quite weak with low caloric tonic water.

So when my period came this month, I was quite surprised when I have only had to take my prescribed drugs once in the day compared to a least four times, (I did have the same symptoms of pain if I had taken the drugs four times instead of once this time. I persevered with this and haven't have to take any more at the moment and hopefully this is me finished). I really hope this will be the case next month. Fingers crossed.

By anon207205 — On Aug 19, 2011

My gym instructor suggested 200mls tonic water daily to prevent leg cramps, and in the four weeks since then, I have had no cramps at all. I am over 70, so I think I'll risk other side effects to enjoy the exercise! I am not on any other medication. Any dire warnings for the elderly?

By anon172767 — On May 04, 2011

@anon141021: Regular tonic water that I see in the stores has high fructose corn syrup. The diet stuff doesn't have aspartame. Definitely go with the diet stuff! HFCS is no good! But choosing between HFCS and aspartame is like choosing between endless vomiting and endless diarrhea. Both stink! Neither are good! No aspartame and no HFCS!

By anon156392 — On Feb 27, 2011

I have been drinking tonic water for about four months and in this time have developed something the specialist thinks is achalasia --tightening of the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus, could it be related?

By anon141021 — On Jan 09, 2011

Please ensure you are drinking regular tonic water and not diet tonic, as the Aspartame in diet drinks causes an endless list of health problems.

By anon133312 — On Dec 10, 2010

Always make an effort to read about something like tonic water for the like of leg cramps. Pay strict attention to possible noted side effects.

Normal malarial doses of quinine far exceed the content of grocery-store tonic water, and it was recommended for cramps by my doctor, and appears to work well. Tinnitus appears to be a problem, for me anyway, which can/will drive me nutso in short order.

Bottom line? Never take any drug uninformed of the risks involved. Educate yourself!

By anon117927 — On Oct 12, 2010

I suffer from a form of red eye, where at least once a fortnight, one of my eyes will go red for about three days. I tried everything, from eye drops, to going to the doctor. Anything put into my eyes would inflame them further, until I found drinking tonic water, not only reduces any pain but makes the redness go away after two days.

I believe the Quinine within tonic water helps this and I would like to know if I drank tonic water every day would I have no more red eyes. For those asking I do not smoke drugs and it will only occur in one eye for a period of two or three days and then two weeks later flip to the other eye. Never in both.

What causes this? Is it stress related?

By anon107661 — On Aug 31, 2010

I am positive that tonic water eliminates my leg cramps. I've used it for years with absolutely no problems. One small glass of two ounces of orange juice (to cover the nasty taste) and just two ounces of tonic water with breakfast every other day is all it takes. I've tried different amounts and combos. This works best for me.

By anon104450 — On Aug 16, 2010

This may sound strange but when I drink too much tonic water (16oz) I actually get leg cramps. I also get very bad diarrhea. Perhaps it counteracts with my two types of blood pressure medication. I just know that it really does mess me up. Unfortunately, I like my vodka and tonic.

By anon83971 — On May 13, 2010

Not sure how it works, just know that when I started to drink it everyday, about 15-20 oz, my nocturnal leg cramps ceased. I actually ran out and didn't drink any for a couple days and my leg cramps started again. I am convinced that it has helped my problems.

It was really bad. I was waking up multiple time a night and had to get up from bed and walk around to relieve it. My calves actually hurt almost every day from the previous night's cramps. They are gone with the tonic water.

By anon77909 — On Apr 16, 2010

I used to suffer with nocturnal leg cramps until I was told to drink one can of tonic water nightly before sleep. I tried this and after a couple of weeks the cramps disappeared.

By anon66688 — On Feb 21, 2010

How much should I drink for leg cramps, and how often?

By DrMay — On Feb 21, 2010

You should consult with your prenatal care provider in regards to your diet.

By DrMay — On Feb 21, 2010

Tonic Water has been known to show false positives for cocaine up to twice the NIDA cutoff level of 300 ng/ml.

By anon64081 — On Feb 05, 2010

Is tonic water harmful to an unborn baby if a pregnant woman takes it regularly?

By anon40145 — On Aug 06, 2009

why does it say that tonic water can show up positive for cocaine on drug test?

By anon34463 — On Jun 23, 2009

Tonic water in small doses will not harm unless you are allergic to the ingredients. However, prolonged use of Tonic water can cause cinchonism which covers several different side effects.

I started drinking tonic water for leg cramps. I liked the taste of it so much, that I would rather have tonic water instead of a regular soda. But now it has caused a few problems that even had the doctors stumped until I had to keep a list of my daily diets which also included any sodas, coffee, even a glass of water.

By jozzie65 — On May 18, 2009

if you take a blood test or urine test and you have consumed tonic water what will the test show drug wise? really want to know.

By anon28583 — On Mar 18, 2009

Malaria is not a bacterial infection. It is a blood parasite. Antibiotics will *not* cure it. Only anti-parasitics (which are far more toxic) will.

By webbhost — On Mar 04, 2009

It should be noted that Quinine found in tonic water can cause allergic reactions and cause symptoms from rashes to fatality in rare cases. Due to the content of quinine in tonic water, tonic water can also be used to help prevent cramps. There was once quinine prescriptions available, however this was banned due to the allergy problem.

By anon17796 — On Sep 07, 2008

can tonic water cause hand trembles??

By anon17393 — On Aug 28, 2008

How do you make your own tonic water using club soda?

By anon16703 — On Aug 12, 2008

Bitter Lemon also gets its bitter taste from quinine.

By anon5223 — On Nov 17, 2007

are there side-effects of drinking too much tonic water?

By anon2601 — On Jul 18, 2007

famous brand names of mineral water?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
Learn more
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