It's so tough that some cities are literally charging extra for soda, in an effort to lead to healthier beverage choices. But American culture has long been thirsty for soda and even as seltzers, sparkling sodas, and kombuchas crowd drugstores, supermarkets, and gas stations, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are still the most popular beverage brands in the U.S., with a combined net worth of $350 billion. That's a lot of cans.
But recently, the wellness world has been bubbling up its own soda contenders, attempting to formulate something that hits the spot in the same way as the classic combo of carbonated water, sugar, caffeine, and high-fructose corn syrup that have been a mainstay of sodas for decades. As it turns out, Mother Nature can compete damn well with artificial chemicals—and the cans are way cuter, too. United Sodas ($34.99 for a 12-pack), Poppi ($35.88 for a 12-pack), Olipop ($35.99 for a 12-pack), Dona ($24 for a six pack), and Health Ade's new Booch Pop ($19.99 for an eight pack) are the new soda guard, here to upgrade the sugary carbonated beverages of the past. A healthy soda revolution? Oh, it's happening.
What Makes a Soda a Soda
Wellness entrepreneurs have embraced making seltzers, sparkling waters, and even fizzy alcoholic drinks, but soda has long been treated as a dirty four letter word in the health world. It's the very reason that made United Sodas CEO Marisa Zupan run towards the opportunity. "Soda has always been the 'black sheep' of beverages, so I thought, instead of viewing soda as the enemy, what if we redefined what a soda was?" Zupan says.
Zupan wanted to embrace a lot of what soda stood for, including the American romanticism of it, while upgrading it with healthier ingredients people would want to drink on the reg. With that ethos in mind, United Soda launched in May 2020 with 12 flavors, all with natural ingredients and much lower in sugar than a traditional soft drink. The cherry pop, for example, has six grams of added sugar per serving, while a can of Coke has 39 grams.
The addition of sugar might sound surprising for a brand billing itself as healthy, but the decision made perfect sense for Zupan. "Your brain doesn't know the difference between a little sugar and a lot of sugar, but it does know the difference between sugar and a sugar substitute," she says, referencing the fact that artificial sweeteners are associated with increased sugar cravings and disrupted satiety. (Plus studies have linked several types of artificial sweeteners with health issues like disrupted gut health, increased cortisol levels, and impaired insulin function, making them not that much better than sugar anyways.)
Here's everything you need to know about sugar (and the many, many alternatives out there):
Dona co-founder Amy Rothstein similarly decided to use cane sugar in her brand's line of healthy sodas. "We get a lot of sh*t for including sugar. My decision to launch a sweetened soda, not a seltzer, not a monk fruit-sweetened super drink, was intentional," she says. "These sodas are a treat. They’re bold in flavor, unique, and their flavors are highlighted by just the right amount of sweetness from cane sugar, not masked by the artificial flavors of fake sweeteners." She points out that at 29 grams of sugar per can, they still have 12 percent less sugar than conventional sodas, and also free of anything artificial. Instead, spices and herbs are used for flavor, such as pink peppercorn, turmeric, honeybush, juniper, lime, and chamomile.
These 2.0 versions from healthy soda brands raises the question as to what exactly it means to define a soda. For Zupan, soda's essence lies in the carbonation, mouthfeel, and taste. If one of those components doesn't match up with what you're craving, it won't be satisfying.
Finding Ingredients That Don't Fall Flat
For Poppi co-founder Allison Ellsworth, her mission was to create "a modern soda with tangible, health benefits." All the sodas in the line, which launched in April, center around apple cider vinegar, which she chose for its prebiotic benefits. The wellness world has long loved ACV. There's only one problem: it tastes horrible.
Yes, apple cider vinegar tastes terrible, but it comes with lots of benefits:
"This was the biggest hurdle in making the sodas," Ellsworth says. "I knew if I added a ton of sugary orange juice or if I tried masking it with a ton of honey it would taste good, but it would not be healthy. So, I spent time experimenting and found the perfect balance of full soda taste and health. This was always my number one goal. It took years and a ton of consumer testing to get where we are today." Among the ingredients that proved effective was a blend of stevia and cane sugar (giving the drink four to five grams of sugar per can, depending on the flavor), and all natural herbs and juices.
Olipop, which launched in December 2018, was also created with gut health in mind. While traditional sodas aren't exactly ideal for gut health (the sugar feeds bad bacteria in the gut, and as mentioned above, artificial sweeteners can disrupt the microbiome), Olipop sodas are high in fiber at around nine grams per can, have almost zero sugar, and also incorporate prebiotic ingredients. "At its core, Olipop is designed to increase everyone’s consumption of fiber and prebiotics through a nutritionally diverse mix of botanicals and plant extracts," co-founder Ben Goodwin says. "It’s also our goal to provide a low-sugar alternative to soda, through a taste profile that people love and are familiar with."
As a kombucha brand, Health-Ade has long been in the business of making gut-friendly drinks, but today it is unveiling its first-ever soda line, Health-Ade Booch Pop. CEO and co-founder Diana Trout says a major part of the reason for crafting the line was the realization that, while kombucha may taste good, it definitely doesn't taste like soda. The Health-Ade Booch Pop line is made with kombucha and cold pressed juice. "That’s how we get the full flavor with way less sugar and how we get the belly-loving acids from fermentation," Trout says. She also explains that prebiotics derived from cranberries are also added, as another gut health-boosting ingredient.
With all these options now available from healthy soda brands, it's clear soda has gotten a long-awaited upgrade. Registered dietitian Chelsey Amer, RD, says that while she hasn't tried any of the new sodas yet, she sees the change as a good one. But she does raise three points she wants consumers to know. One is that these better-for-you sodas shouldn't replace good ol' H20 in terms of what to hydrate with. "It's important to aim for the majority of your hydration to come from water," she says. Second, Amer says different people react differently to sugar substitutions, such as stevia. "Some are actually sweeter than sugar, which can increase cravings for sweets in some people," she says. Amer also calls out that the term "natural flavors," is not defined by the Food and Drug Administration and can have many meanings. "To truly be an informed customer, you should contact brands for clarification," she says.
But these caveats aside, reaching for one of these new beverages is definitely going to be better for you than conventional sodas. Consider the thirst for a healthier soft drink, quenched.
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