It’s official: soda is evil.
Ok, maybe that’s an overstatement, or at least unnecessary judgment. But with Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on sales of the stuff (in quantities of 16 ounces or more) and other cities considering similar action, there’s more attention than ever on soda’s failing nutritional report card.
Why the bad rap? First, soda is loaded with sugar, typically in the form of high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, which has been shown to contribute to two of our country’s most serious health problems, obesity and diabetes. (Diet soda may not be any better for you; see here and here.) Second: “The most popular, mainstream sodas—Coke, Pepsi and the like—are full of chemicals that do a sum total of absolutely nothing good for our bodies,” says Clean Plates founder and nutritionist, Jared Koch.
So what’s a soda fan to do? Here are a few options.
Alterna-Sodas: For The Person Who Can’t Go Without
Bodegas around the city and stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are stocked with soda brands that appear to be healthier options than the Cokes and Pepsis of the world. You’ve seen them: The packaging is artsy-artisanal and plastered with words like “all-natural” or “old-fashioned.” While it may suit your values, as it does mine, to support independent or locally owned businesses, the fact is that most of these brands are still packing sugar—and lots of it.
Still, the cane sugar in many of these alterna-sodas is less processed than HFCS, meaning you’re just getting sugar (and a cleaner flavor) instead of a bunch of toxic hangers-on. A growing number of brands skip the sugar altogether, subbing in healthier sweeteners like stevia or unsweetened fruit juice. Plus, sodas in this category usually have fewer mystery chemicals than their mass-produced counterparts.
The bottom line: Read the ingredients of any soda to know exactly what you’re putting in your body, versus relying on vintage-inspired packaging or “all-natural” claims. Sugar—even pure cane sugar—is not a health food, but ingredient lists with fewer chemicals are always a better choice.
Other Sparkling Options: Carbonation Plus Hydration
If you aren’t hankering for a soda, per se, or are looking for help kicking the soda habit, may I introduce you to my good friend Mr. Seltzer, a.k.a. Sparkling Water? With the same carbonated kick as soda, seltzer has the benefit of being, well, water, which means it hydrates you and supports good health.
If plain seltzer is too boring, add a squirt of lemon or lime, a few drops of orange blossom water or a dash of your favorite fruit juice. If your sweet tooth demands more, try adding a drop or two of stevia. This natural sweetener (also available in powdered form) is 200-300 times as sweet as sugar but has a low glycemic index; it wreaks less havoc on your blood sugar. Buying flavored seltzer? Choose one with fruit juice instead of “natural flavors.”
Juices, Smoothies and Teas: Nutrient-Rich and Naturally Sweet
Last but not least, consider a class of beverages that lacks bubbles but offers sweet refreshment nonetheless. Freshly squeezed fruit juice (like those sold at these juice bars around the city) will satisfy your sweet tooth while packing a nutritional punch, infusing your cells with all kinds of good-for-you vitamins and a natural energy high. “Just be sure you’re drinking 100% juice; organic is ideal, as is adding some freshly juiced greens,” says Clean Plates founder, Jared Koch.
Instead of adding sugar-sweetened sherbet when ordering smoothies (or making your own), choose ingredients like fresh fruit, organic milk—try almond or cashew—and fresh herbs and spices like mint and cinnamon.
Finally, a tall glass of iced tea can be deeply refreshing, hydrating, and filled with antioxidants. For added flavor, mix in diced fresh fruit or a sprig of your favorite herb.
What are your favorite naturally sweetened, sugar-free drinks? Have you weaned yourself off of a soda habit? Tell us how you did it.