“Mermaid” is Tonya Spanglo’s favorite flavor. The taste, as Spanglo assures me, is not meant to mimic actual aquatic humanoid flesh or even the salty oceans that mythical merpeople call home, but rather a combination of coconut, pineapple, and citrus. It comes in blue syrup form and is made by a company called Skinny Mixes, which produces an incredible number of sweet, citrus, tart, tangy, and rich flavors, from the wildly specific “chocolate coconut macaroon” to the more existential “unicorn” (which tastes like frosting and cotton candy). Spanglo has narrowed down this smorgasbord of flavors to a little over a dozen favorites, with mermaid topping the list.
“It’s my absolute favorite. I love pineapple, and I love coconut. And then I love dragon fruit. I can probably name my top 15,” Spanglo told me.
Spanglo’s survey of syrups — and subsequent fame — is fueled by one flavor on this Earth that she cannot stand: plain water.
“I hate plain water. I’ve never been a water drinker ever,” Spanglo tells me. Not enjoying water is a problem because Spanglo, like most humans, is around 50 to 60 percent water. Making it taste like mermaid allows her to drink more, and she has turned her own life hack into TikTok gold, mixing specialty water flavors for her 806,700 followers. “I found some fruity flavor syrups. The first ones I got were mermaid and unicorn and I just started putting them in water. And then I use them in my puddings. I use them in everything.”
Spanglo and I spoke a little before the clock hit 4 pm in Marietta, Oklahoma, where she lives. She had already drunk over 80 ounces of flavored aqua, what Spanglo calls her “water of the day.” During our conversation, she was working her way through another 40-ounce tumbler.
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“I’ve made the waters every day. But I didn’t necessarily share them on TikTok every day,” Spanglo said, explaining that she started posting in the summer of 2022. “I would just share them periodically. But every time I shared one, they would go viral like every time. And so I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s it right there. That’s my niche.’”
Today hundreds of thousands of TikTok users follow Spanglo, and watch her turn tap water into potions and elixirs like Bubblegum (471,000+ views), Fuzzy Navel (257,000+ views), and Salted Caramel Apple (772,400+ views).
A quantifiable testament to that popularity: a clear tumbler that Spanglo recently cited on her TikTok sold out, she says, in two hours. Skinny Mixes, which produces the aforementioned mermaid syrup, says mermaid sold out on the website over eight times. Her videos are now so popular that Skinny Mixes has partnered with Spanglo.
Back in the day, transforming water into something tastier, like wine, was considered by some to be a miracle — an act of divinity. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise then that Spanglo has created an entire community — dubbed WaterTok — full of disciples tarting up Earth’s most humble liquid. Not even haters can stop watching.
Spanglo’s water videos are surprises delivered in a routine format. Each one begins with her talking to screen, sometimes announcing what time of day it is or what she plans to do. After pleasantries, she gets down to “making” the water. She fills a tumbler full of pebbled ice — the good ice, she calls it, which implies the existence of bad ice (presumably cubed or, ugh, crushed). Ice hitting the inside of the tumbler must audibly crunch, just like the gurgling water must be filled to the brim. Spanglo’s ice and water mise en place is constant.
What changes, from video to video, are her recipes.
Spanglo has a caddy of zero-calorie powdered flavor packets — strawberry, pineapple, and blue raspberry, among others — that she combines with one or two of the zero-calorie syrups — dragon fruit acai, peach, coconut, unicorn, raspberry, pistachio latte, vanilla almond et al. — from her Lazy Susan to create the water of the day. Each recipe calls for one packet and one or two syrups.
She doesn’t always have a plan. For what ends up being her piña colada water, she picks out a Crush™ pineapple flavor packet and then spins her “water bar” to find the coconut syrup. She squeezes down two pumps, then decides to add a third. Spanglo swirls the concoction in her Stanley tumbler, turning her water a shade of highlighter yellow.
Then she takes a sip.
It’s a moment of truth where the audience and Spanglo alike find out if she was able to successfully make her water taste like a completely different entity, in this case, a piña colada. Was she able to replicate the flavors? Does it taste good? Does it taste better than plain water?
Her eyes light up. Her cheeks pucker. The water she created is so good, it is beyond speech. “If you like piña coladas,” she sings in triumph, and winks. “And I do, baby.”
Her videos are so endlessly watchable thanks to a combination of enthusiasm and suspense. Each recipe contains a will-she or won’t-she moment, and a relentless determination to make water not taste like water at all. Watching Spanglo defy the old gods and transform water into liquid mimics that have nothing to do with water at all is watching a woman conquer nature. With each video, she pushes the limit just a little a bit further — perhaps even into the supernatural with a drink, nay, a potion called “Green Apple Mermaid.”
“I think people love it because I’m just showing them new and different ways that they can make their ‘water goal,’” she tells me. The “water goal” Spanglo references is both personal and something more and more people have been considering in recent years. For Spanglo herself, meeting her water goal is directly connected to her health. Three years ago, she had gastric sleeve surgery that required her to drink a certain amount of water per day. That was tough for someone who hates the taste of H2O and who loves sugary drinks.
“I used to weigh over 420 pounds,” she explains. “I used to drink about five cokes a day. Five regular cokes! So now instead of drinking Cokes, I drink these flavored waters.”
For Spanglo, swapping the empty calories of her sodas for zero-sugar, zero-calorie drinks was killing two birds with one stone. She could satisfy the cravings for sugary beverages and meet the hydration goals that her doctor asked of her.
“The biggest compliment that I get the most is ‘you’re the greatest for showing me this because now I can give up soda,” Spanglo tells me. She cites a recent follower who Spanglo says was “addicted” to the sugary drinks at Sonic. Since following Spanglo, that person said they haven’t gone back to Sonic in four days.
This fan response speaks to the larger level, which is that it’s common health advice that human beings should be drinking more water. That concept has spurred both vociferous public conversation and a cottage industry of gigantic, sometimes metal, flasks and bottles. It’s also inspired some WaterTok influencers, like Lauren Sousa, whose most popular recipe is “peach ring” — one Sunkist peach packet, one and a half pumps of cherry syrup, and one pump of peach.
What intrigues Sousa about WaterTok is not just replicating the water at home but also the aesthetics of organization. She has five or so Stanley brand 40-ounce cups that form a pastel gradient, from peach to mint green.
Her syrups live neatly in her cupboard, organized by flavor, and with pumps purchased separately. There’s a certain holy grail aspect to the way Sousa describes WaterTok. There’s a thrill in the chase. There’s always one more perfectly pink Stanley cup to collect, one more packet to find at the Target or T.J. Maxx, one more caddy to help organize her setup, what she has dubbed her “hydration station.”
“I always try to incorporate my cabinet,” Sousa says. “People love organization. You know, people love to see things lined up and things placed neatly together.”
But despite the positive feedback she gets, Sousa, Spanglo, and other WaterTokers have gotten their fair share of haters.
Social media is an ever-shifting terrain, but one thing remains constant no matter the platform: Some people are always going to be mad. These anti-fans live in the comments section of Sousa and Spanglo’s videos, telling them that they’re “insane,” that they’re drinking juice, or to just grow up and drink plain water like adults.
“Someone told me that I was going to be on dialysis,” Sousa tells me. “I’ve even had some people make comments about my appearance, like ‘Oh my god, her jawline is gone.’”
While she thinks the attacks are out of hand, Sousa acknowledges why WaterTok videos might be so triggering. The long-term research on artificial sweeteners and their effects on health, she says, is still murky — that’s a big part of why she doesn’t have more than one per day and why she dilutes the packet and syrups in her 40-ounce tumblers. She gets how it looks; how social media can make it seem like all she’s drinking is syrup water.
According to nutritionists I spoke to, concerns about the effects of artificial sweeteners aren’t unfounded.
Martha Field, an assistant professor in nutritional sciences at Cornell University, told me that when it comes to artificial sweeteners, there’s no long-term, evidence-based data that these sweeteners are definitely helpful or harmful. That lack of research, she says, can worry some people and could very well trigger the very passionate scoldings that WaterTokers get.
She also explains that the idea of a “water goal” has no evidence-based backing. “In terms of like a magic number when it comes to water intake, the current belief is that there’s no consensus,” Field says, pointing out that there’s no data that says that consuming 80 ounces of water is going to make you a distinctly healthier individual.
Growing up, I had it hammered into my consciousness that I needed eight glasses of water per day or I’d shrivel up into a husk of a person and die a dry death. To my chagrin, Field says this was popular guidance but that there’s no good data that backs that up. “Unless you’re in a marathon or something extreme, for the average human, your thirst will tell you when you need to drink more.”
Field does see positives in WaterTok, namely that these calorie-free, sugar-free drinks could get someone to break their sugary drink habits. It’s akin, she says, to someone subbing out their regular sodas for diet sodas. For someone who is overweight and needs to cut their sugar intake, these drinks could be considered a “healthier” option.
“It’s positive that people are thinking about reducing sugar-sweetened beverage intake,” Field says. The caveat, Field acknowledges, is that these choices are ultimately personal. To get the best sense of what’s beneficial for your health means consulting your own doctor, nutritionist, or dietician.
Lisa Young, an author and adjunct professor of nutrition at NYU, agrees, pointing out that Spanglo’s dietary adjustment is tied to her gastric sleeve procedure. What concerns Young is that the trend-ification of “water goals” and the focus on sugar-free, calorie-free drinks is conflating calorie restriction with healthy living. Calories consumed is only one part of a portrait of someone’s overall health, she says, and watching calories is primarily tied to weight loss. When you start focusing on weight loss being the sole marker for health, it becomes too close to disordered eating or disordered habits for Young’s comfort.
“[Focusing on calorie restriction] certainly doesn’t promote disordered eating in everybody — it promotes a mentality of disordered eating, for someone who is impressionable and vulnerable, it could be a problem,” Young, who counsels high schoolers, tells me. “Water goals, or ‘#watergoals’ — that’s not something that’s been mandated by nutritionists or the government.”
There are, Young says, more natural options to stay hydrated than artificially sweetened water, even if one hates the taste of water.
“You can have fruits and vegetables that are high in water, you can have cooked broccoli, you can have salad, you can have cantaloupe, or you can make a smoothie with berries — those are other ways of getting hydrated and it’s gonna be a lot healthier,” Young says, though she concedes that modestly absorbing water through digested broccoli isn’t as TikTok-friendly as a rainbow-hued drink with unicorn or mermaid components.
“You know, you don’t need this stuff to lose weight. And I get that it’s trendy, but trendy doesn’t always mean good for you,” she says.