There are so few things to enjoy in this life. We can imbibe in booze but only occasionally. In many states, we can’t (legally) indulge in The Devil’s Lettuce or even get health care. That’s why so many of us cherish the wholesome party water known as seltzer. Its playful bubbles are a reminder of how carefree life could be if we all stopped yelling at each other online or tweeting tentacle porn.
Recently, however, The Sun decided to deliver its piping hot take about seltzer which is—we kid you not—“Sparkling water is really, really not good for you.”
Everybody’s got A Take these days. Inside each and every one of us is a piping hot Take, waiting to burst out of our innards like a baby xenomorph. Still, sometimes the Take is Bad, and the feeler of the Take should feel Bad, too—especially when it’s a horribly reported story about something as beloved as seltzer. So, we’re going to help you figure out for yourself when you’ve got a bad take. Also, we’re going to use “seltzer,” “sparkling water” and “club soda” interchangeably, sorry.
Let’s just start with the headline. If you ever see a definitive statement in a science story’s headline (or anywhere in the story for that matter) instead of “might” or “could,” you should immediately be a little skeptical. There are few definites in science. It’s an incremental process that involves experiments—you compare some experimental change with the way things normally go, the control. The results might contain bias based on the design of the experiment and who performed it. Only after repeated, independent experimental results can you say that something is true. And even then, further research might add more complexity or nuance, or even disprove it.
The first few paragraphs are just a grabby lead and summary paragraph. But then, the story cites a source: “Adam Thorne, a dentist in London’s Harley Street.”
“Most people have no idea that fizzy water is extremely acidic, it’s pH3 on the acidity scale. The bubbles erode your tooth enamel—and over time this causes painful, yellow cracked teeth,” Thorne told the Daily Mail.
But you should immediately note that it doesn’t say his qualifications for stating that soda water erodes tooth enamel. Sure, he’s a dentist. But has he actually studied the effect of seltzer on teeth?
Luckily for you, there’s the PubMed, the National Institutes of Health’s database of science studies. Pop into the advanced search and see if there’s an entry with “Thorne A” in the author field and “enamel” or “tooth” in all fields. Nothing shows up, so you might be skeptical as to just how much Thorne knows about the effects of acid on your teeth.
On top of that, the story doesn’t link to any scientific research. That’s another immediate red flag, since a testimony is rarely as solid as actual reported data. So, do another Pubmed search and you’ll find a number of studies on soft drinks, but few on carbonated water itself. You might poke around to other news sites and see what they say. We found this Atlantic story, and if you don’t like the Atlantic, you can at least just skip to the scientific study. One study shows soda water can be potentially bad for your enamel. But even this is just a lab study, meaning it’s not representative of what really happens in the human body—you aren’t soaking your teeth in seltzer.
But, Adam is pretty sure that seltzer has a pH of 3, so we’re good, right? It’s extremely acidic, and that’s a bad thing?
The Sun’s intrepid reporter clearly didn’t think to explain anything about pH or what it means. But just because added flavors and carbonation make the drink slightly more acidic than boring water doesn’t mean seltzer is turning your entire body into an acid soup. This is just a classic scare tactic used in bad reporting—none of the studies say anything about seltzer “rotting your teeth.” Sure, bacteria might cause tooth decay, but none of these studies (nor the new story) mention tooth bacteria.
Also, the assertion that seltzer has a pH of 3 is dubious. Perrier, for example, has a pH of 5.5, and San Pellegrino has a pH of 5.3. A toddler with access to Google could regurgitate this information.
The Sun completely owns itself so hard in the next part it reads like a Kurt Eichenwald tweet. The writer includes a quote from Edmond R. Hewlett, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association, who says that “it is the flavoring and not the carbonation that lowers the pH (increases the acidity) to a level that can potentially erode tooth enamel with frequent consumption.” So, not the carbonation that causes the potential problem. Check.
In the second half of the story, you’ll notice the writer still doesn’t link to scientific research, but to more news stories, and that they make the assertion that carbonated water will “make you fatter.” Terms like “fatter” should raise a red flag—generally, this kind of language indicates an oversimplification of what the team really did, used to scare readers. In this case, a few Google searches took us to the paper that the fat claim is based on, linked here. You’ll notice that in this study, carbonated water only made rats gain weight, not humans, and plenty of things don’t work when repeated in humans. On top of that, the story talks about a “hunger hormone” called ghrelin and references a study that tests seltzer’s effects on ghrelin levels in humans. But it only has 20 subjects, probably not enough to say anything definitive.
When reading a suspicious science story, try to see whether word choice is consistent throughout the story, and whether the statements made actually support the claim. In this case, you’ll notice in the last sentence that the author starts referring to a “zero calorie diet drink,” rather than seltzer. The evidence that the news story presents only deals with diet drinks, not the claim in the headline, which refers only to sparkling water.
Hating on seltzer is a spicy take for sure, but this take is also a bad one. Live fast, die young, and drink your bubble water with abandon.