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Why Topo Chico tastes so good, according to scientists

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Call me a millennial cliché — but I love sparkling water. In fact, it’s largely replaced caffeine for me, its delightful effervescence rousing me from my afternoon slump, all while keeping me hydrated. For the longest time, La Croix was my go-to, although every now and then I’d dip into Bubly or Waterloo. Now, I’m afraid I’ll have to break up with all three of them for Topo Chico.

I tried Topo Chico for the first time in Austin a few years ago, then went without it until last week, when I had it during a trip to Charleston — and wondered how I had survived its absence for so long. The naturally carbonated water has a softer mouthfeel than other sparkling waters, bathing the tongue in a gentle fizz, rather than imparting it with a crisp bite, a la La Croix. And while I find most mineral waters too salty, Topo Chico has a nice, subtle salinity, laced with a hint of citrus.

Other Topo Chico stans agree. “It’s got more flavor, balance, and sparkle than other sparkling waters,” Jack Gilmore, a chef and restaurant owner in Austin, Texas, told Garden & Gun. “I probably drink three or four a day.” “This is officially the fizz water that all other fizz waters should aspire to,” raved Los Angeles Magazine, which ranked the drink number one in its recent list of top brands of sparkling water. But why do so many people swear by Topo Chico? Is it the bubbles? The mineral content?

Before we unravel this enigma, some history: Like LaCroix, a favorite of Midwestern moms in the 90s, Topo Chico isn’t new. In fact, it’s really old, drawn from a limestone spring in Monterrey, Mexico since 1895, per Bloomberg Businessweek. Although it’s naturally carbonated, it gets an added touch of bubbliness to compensate for any lost from purification, the New York Times explains. Lore has it that the spring that supplies Topo Chico has special healing properties, but the brand claims only that its water can help with thirst, digestion, and hangovers.

For a while, you could find Topo Chico mostly in northern Mexico and Texas (especially hipster bastion Austin) until Coca-Cola acquired it in 2017 and brought it to the rest of the US, Bloomberg reports. The purchase of a source of regional pride by the beverage behemoth — which basically boosted the drink’s price — didn’t go over well with Texans, per VICE. Tim Murphy, owner of Austin dive bar The Grackle, went so far as to post an Instagram video of himself hurling a bottle of Topo Chico against the outside wall of his establishment.

Now that the rest of us no longer have to wait until our next visit to Texas or other southern states to sip on Topo Chico, the drink’s fandom appears to be growing, with several media outlets musing about what makes it so damn good. With taste being so subjective, and without knowing Topo Chico's exact processing protocol (likely proprietary information), a definitive scientific explanation has remained elusive. But the experts I interviewed proposed a few hypotheses.

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Lower carbon dioxide levels may have something to do with the drink’s pleasant mouthfeel, according to Paul Wise, a sensory scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center. Contrary to popular belief, “the sting from carbonation doesn’t come from bubbles,” he tells Mic. Carbon dioxide, released as bubbles, diffuses into the tongue, where it reacts with enzymes to form what's called carbonic acid. A class of proteins within the sensory nerve endings of the tongue detects this acidification — that’s what causes the biting sensation, not the bubbles. As it turns out, these proteins are also why wasabi and cinnamon sting, Wise says.

Lower carbon dioxide levels may have something to do with the drink’s pleasant mouthfeel

If Topo Chico does contain less carbon dioxide than other sparkling waters (which may be due to being bottled at a lower pressure), then that would translate to less acidification detected by the specialized proteins in the tongue’s sensory nerve endings. “That could explain why it feels softer,” as well as more balanced, Wise says.

As for why Topo Chico tastes less earthy than other mineral waters, it may very well be because it contains fewer minerals. A serving has 15 milligrams of sodium, “which is on the lower side,” says Alissa Nolden, an assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Sometimes, we perceive sodium as not only salty, but bitter. As a result, “that lower sodium amount could be more pleasant.”

Nolden adds that Topo Chico also has less calcium than popular mineral water brand Perrier (whose flavor I personally find too mineral-y). An influx of calcium, which is already stored in our taste cells, relays taste signals, Nolden explains. Whether the calcium in foods and beverages also plays a role in that signaling remains unclear, but if so, then the relatively lower calcium levels in Topo Chico may result in a reduced taste signal, which could help explain its subtle flavor.

Amid the lingering scientific questions, though, one thing is certain: Topo Chico is liquefied heaven, and my taste buds, and life in general, are the better for it.

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