Decades ago, mineral water and carbonated drinks, flavored with medicinal herbs, were used as tonics for common ailments.
"Historically, people didn't make these sodas because they were cute to drink," says Chris Reed, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Reed's Inc., which makes Reed's Ginger Brews and China Cola. "They did it because they needed a root beer spring tonic to clear out their systems after the winter, or ginger ale to help digestion. Back in the log cabin days, people added a little sugar and a little yeast for effervescence."
Today, the consumption of soft drinks is far more pervasive and far less deliberate. Beverage Marketing Corp. estimates the soft drink market at $45 billion in annual wholesale sales, with the "new age" category—including sports drinks, energy drinks, smoothies, teas, fruit juices and premium sodas—accounting for about $13 billion of that total. The new age soda category, populated by soft drinks made with healthier ingredients, is valued at about $320 million.
In modern times, nutritionists and obesity researchers attribute expanding waistbands, particularly among teen-agers, to decreased exercise and increased caloric intake, and many name soft drinks as a leading caloric culprit. A 1998 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest estimated the average 13- to 18-year-old soda drinker—male or female—consumes about 9 percent of his or her calories from soft drinks; boys and girls in the 90th percentile get about 18 percent of their calories from pop.
Mainstream sodas, like many natural versions, rely on high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener. As adults become more concerned about what they and their kids consume, a growing number of natural soda producers have moved beyond touting natural flavors and colors to finding and bringing healthier drink alternatives to market.
Ginger And Tea
Reed, an avowed ginger lover both for its flavor and medicinal qualities, says his flight of ginger brews remain faithful to the ideal of latter-day "functional" drinks. Reed's ginger brews depend on fresh ingredients for taste rather than on flavor enhancements.
Reed begins by brewing batches of roots, spices and fruit juices. After searching for traditional American recipes, he found what he was looking for in the Caribbean, falling in love with a mixture of fresh ginger and pineapple juice that marries its flavors while brewing over the course of a few weeks.
"I don't just go to a flavor laboratory and say, 'Give me some natural flavor for root beer.' I'm constantly searching the world for new recipes," he says.
Kombucha Wonder Drink, made in Portland, Ore., also incorporates traditional curatives into its certified organic beverage. The Wonder Drink capitalizes on green and oolong teas' benefits but adds another twist, kombucha culture, which is similar to sourdough starter. Asians have made Kombucha tea for thousands of years by fermenting the culture with tea and sugar over a period of days to achieve a beverage that packs a healthful punch.
"Effectively, the Wonder Drink is a fermented, nonalcoholic tea beverage," says Chief Operating Officer Jagat Khalsa. "Homemade products are often sour, they've got floaties, and because it's not pasteurized, it's best made in small batches. For safety reasons, we pasteurize all of our products."
Khalsa doesn't make claims as to the Wonder Drink's relative health benefits, although customers have written letters describing how invigorated they feel after consuming the beverage. Part of the wonder in the drink is the calorie content: An 8.5-oz bottle has 60 calories and 8 grams of sugar, about a third of the sugar typically found in a similar amount of natural soda pop.
"You get neither the sugar nor caffeine hangover from this. Each bottle has 75 percent less caffeine than a regular cup of tea—not quite decaf levels, but pretty close," Khalsa says.
Steap Green Tea Soda, a product of The Healthy Beverage Co., also offers tea's benefits to soft drink fans. Brewed green tea is combined with carbonated water and flavors reminiscent of mainstream beverages like Mountain Dew and Orange Crush. Each 12-ounce bottle of U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic Steap contains the equivalent of a cup of green tea and is sweetened with organic, evaporated cane sugar.
Eric Schnell, co-founder of Newton, Penn.-based The Healthy Beverage Co., says evaporated cane sugar is the least-processed sugar available. "Our sugar has actual nutritive value—it has calcium, fiber and vitamin A—because it's from a living plant," Schnell says.
Furthermore, Schnell estimates that 51 percent of all corn seeds grown in the United States are genetically modified, so drinking beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup increases the possibility of ingesting genetically modified organisms. "I don't want anything in my product that could have a GMO as a source," Schnell says.
Several companies, such as IZZE Beverage Co., Smuckers' R.W. Knudsen Family and The Switch, have turned to fruit juice for soda pop flavor and sweetening.
Todd Woloson, chief executive officer of Boulder, Colo.-based IZZE, initially looked to Europe for a healthier, more sophisticated fizzy drink. Not finding anything that satisfied him, he partnered with friend Greg Stroh, a member of the Stroh's beer family, to concoct a drink made solely of fruit juice and carbonated water.
IZZE comes in four flavors—sparkling blackberry, grapefruit, pear and lemon— combining 70 percent fruit juice with 30 percent sparkling water.
"Fruit juice is filled with all kinds of essential vitamins and nutrients. A bottle of IZZE is actually equal to a serving of fruit based on the USDA food guide pyramid," Woloson says.
Like IZZE, makers of The Switch were weary of over-hyped juice drinks that contained 10 percent or less fruit juice. Inspired, they developed a carbonated, 100 percent juice alternative, sweetened with a variety of reconstituted juices, with seven flavors ranging from lemonade to apricot peach and watermelon strawberry. "We have a healthy product that tastes like soda. Moms like it because it tastes like juice. Kids love it because it's cool. Teenagers, sick of the 'establishment,' love it because it's not Coke or Pepsi. So our brand appeals to consumers in a psychographic nature instead of a demographic nature," says Bill Sipper, executive vice president of The Switch, located in Richmond, Va.
With Americans' ever-increasing interest in organic, healthful products, more natural soda pop beverages are likely to follow the leaders in search of what Khalsa terms "product DNA."
"There's something in the DNA of things that makes them great or approachable or part of your life ... what they call, in yogic terms, prana—a certain breath to it, the power of its own life," Khalsa says. "Because things that don't have that heart to them are not sustainable."
Freelance writer Rachel Hauser is a food columnist for The Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 5/p.