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Bubbly bonanza

(article, Nancy Schatz Alton)

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Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square district is home to one of the latest innovations in the carbonated-beverage industry: Dry Soda’s tasting room. Inside, bright orange walls indicate the flavor of Kumquat Dry Soda. Patrons unsure of flavor choices — including Kumquat, Lavender, Rhubarb, or Lemongrass — peruse a food-pairing sign above a silver bar. Lavender’s floral tones enhance chocolate, the sign says, while the lush fruit flavor of Rhubarb works well with winter vegetables.  
This culinary beverage aims to “be a very sophisticated version of what we think of as soda,” says Dry Soda founder and president Sharelle Klaus, who launched her line of drinks in August 2005. While dining out during her four pregnancies, Klaus felt left out in the beverage department. She found sparkling juices and traditional sodas too sweet, and she missed pairing wine with food. 

The subtle Dry Soda is just one of numerous natural carbonated beverages to hit the market within the last five years or so. These drinks are hard to categorize. Some fall under the sparkling-juices label. Others are likened to traditional carbonated soft drinks, such as Coke and Pepsi, but are called “natural sodas”; the beverage industry pours these into its “premium drink” category. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=350 credit="Photo courtesy Dry Soda" caption="The tasting room at Dry Soda in Seattle."]

In 2006, the overall U.S. soda market captured nearly $49 billion wholesale, while the premium-soda market made $270 million and the juice category garnered $130 million. There are no breakout numbers for either natural sodas or sparkling juices (the latter falls into the juice category), making progress difficult to track.   

By contrast, traditional carbonated soft-drink sales are carefully measured. Despite their strong market share and billions in revenue, sales volumes for sodas are shrinking. In 2006, carbonated soft-drink sale volumes fell 1.1 percent, according to the Beverage Marketing Corporation. The first decline in the previous 20 years of soda sales was noted in 2005. That year, Beverage Digest reported, Coca-Cola Classic sales volumes fell 2 percent and Original Pepsi fell 3.2 percent. Even diet-soda sales are stagnating, with Diet Pepsi losing 1.9 percent in volume in 2005 and Diet Coke only growing 0.1 percent. 

Some experts say that the decline in the traditional soda industry is a good omen for natural sodas and sparkling juices. Of course, alternative sodas and sparkling juices have been around for some time. Boylan has been making its soda since 1891. Martinelli’s introduced the first non-alcoholic apple cider after World War I. Snapple — named for the company’s carbonated apple soda — was born in 1972. Hansen’s natural sodas also debuted in the 1970s. Welch’s launched sparkling grape juice in 1982 and Blue Sky soda pop quickly followed in 1983. R.W. Knudsen’s Fruit Spritzers were also created in the 1980s. And in 1996, Jones Soda began selling six brands of soft drink.

So what makes the launch of numerous new-but-similar products noteworthy? In a phrase: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a processed sweetener that’s the industry standard for soda pop. People looking for the fizz and flavor of soft drinks without the controversy of HFCS are turning away from mainstream brands and picking up bottles of natural soda instead. 

Traditional sodas are sweetened with HFCS instead of cane sugar. The reasons for this are mainly economic: Sugar costs about $2.80 a pound, while HFCS runs a mere 40 cents a pound, says Mark Seiler, the president of natural-soda company Maine Root. 

The health aspects of HFCS are fiercely debated. The syrup is made from corn, which is a highly subsidized crop; HFCS research is therefore a political issue. It's also a scientific issue; as clinical nutritionist Nancy Appleton has contended, HFCS is processed by the body differently than sugar. “Because it is metabolized by the liver, fructose does not cause the pancreas to release insulin the way it normally does,” Appleton has written. “Fructose converts to fat more than any other sugar. This may be one of the reasons Americans continue to get fatter.” A recent study also found that drinks made with HFCS may contribute to diabetes, especially in children.

The debate surrounding HFCS has helped fuel a desire for healthier options and mainstreamed some alternative drinks, which are now sold at chain stores such as Safeway and Costco. In recent years, school districts began pulling Coke and Pepsi machines from their lunchrooms, sometimes awarding beverage contracts to sparkling-juice manufacturers. Niche products have gained buyers thanks to retailers such as Whole Foods, Starbucks, and Wild Oats, says Steve Hersh, the co-founder and president of GuS sodas. Coke and Pepsi aren’t even for sale at Whole Foods or Wild Oats. GuS soda — which stands for Grown-Up Soda — garners more shelf space than 7-Up at Wegmans, a traditional supermarket on the East Coast.

[%image gus float=left width=375 credit="Photo courtesy GuS" caption="GuS drinks come in several flavors."]

“Consumers have educated themselves,” says Hersh. “Five, 10 years ago, people weren’t so ingredient-conscious. \[Now\] they have a heightened awareness about high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, aspartame, and artificial sweeteners.” 

While some scientists agree with clinical nutritionist Appleton, others say it doesn’t matter whether this claim is true. In What to Eat, nutritionist Marion Nestle writes, “If corn sweeteners have anything to do with obesity, it is surely because processed foods are loaded with them and lots of people are eating more of such foods . . . The food supply now provides an average of 200 calories per person per day from the high-fructose corn syrup in soft drinks alone.” 

Some consumers are making drink choices based on HFCS, but others are shying away from diet soda for similar health reasons. A 2005 study found that for each can of diet soft drink consumed per day, the risk of obesity went up by 41 percent. And a traditional soda — regular or diet — usually contains chemicals such as phosphorus, a strong acid that can actually clean metal and also robs the body of calcium. Diet sodas contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, acesulfame-K, and sucralose (also known as Splenda). While nutritionist Nestle believes aspartame and sucralose are safe in small doses, in What to Eat she writes that she tends “to be uncomfortable with artificial anything when it comes to food.” 
But that doesn’t mean the alternative sodas and sparkling juices lining store shelves across the U.S. should go unscrutinized. Blue Sky Natural Soda, for example, contains high-fructose corn sweeteners, just like conventional soda. Hansen’s natural sodas also include HFCS, while the company’s diet sodas contain Splenda. And Jones Soda just switched over to using pure cane sugar in its sodas.  

Sugar is a natural substance, but it lacks any nutritional value. Some sparkling juices and natural sodas gain all their sweetness from fruit juice instead of cane sugar or HFCS. Some products claim to count as one full serving of fruit. But that serving of fruit lacks the nutrients associated with eating the actual fruit, such as fiber. And fruit juice still has calories — sometimes quite a lot.

But the consumers reaching for these drinks aren’t always thinking about wellness issues. Some are looking for alternatives to alcohol, whether they’re at a family dinner or bar-hopping on New Year’s Eve. And people who do drink cocktails may be looking for something new to mix with alcohol. “People have had enough rum-and-Cokes to last a lifetime,” says Gerry Khermouch, the editor of Beverage Business Insights, an electronic newsletter.

The list of newer sparkling juices and natural sodas is vast and constantly changing. Most of these beverages have been around at least three to five years. A drink launch typically takes three or four years; once launched, the product either gains national attention and sales or fades away.

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 credit="Photo courtesy Izze" caption="A few of Izze's sparkling juices."]

The companies in the roundup below are considered some of the strongest swimmers in the bubbly pool. Check product availability on each company’s website.

Cricket Cola originated when its founders were seeking an alternative to diet soda. Current flavors include Cola, Sparkling Mandarin Green Tea, Sparkling Pomegranate, and Diet Cola (the diet contains Splenda); each 12-ounce bottle contains at least two cups of green tea. “We wanted to make sure consumers didn’t lose the fun in a carbonated soft drink, but they also get a nice mellow lift from the green tea,” says co-founder Mary Heron. “It’s either that or grab a bag of M&Ms.” 

Dry Soda founder Sharelle Klaus believes that American palates are changing, becoming more sophisticated and less enraptured with supersweet flavors. She’s essentially created a new category of soda: a dry, subtle, wine-like soda pop. Flavored with fruit and herb extracts and sweetened with pure cane sugar, these culinary sodas have 50 to 70 calories. 

Seeking to make a premium, upscale adult juice using varietal fruits, essn comes in an 8.4-ounce can, just like the original Red Bull energy drink. This 100 percent sparkling juice comes in six flavors: Blood Orange and Cranberry, Minneola Tangerine, Fuji Apple, Meyer Lemon, Mango Passionfruit, and Mont Morenci Cherry. Next year, essn will also be sold in 12-ounce glass bottles.  

Fizzy Lizzy’s eight sparkling juices are all sweetened with fruit juices, with anywhere from 50 to 75 percent juice making up a bottle’s contents. Founder Liz Morrill prides herself on using mainly characterizing juice to flavor her soda: in the Grapefruit soda, for example, most of the juice is grapefruit juice. Only a small portion of the juice is what’s called a filler juice (either pear, apple, or white grape juice). Filler juices are, by definition, sweeter, cheaper, more caloric juices that companies often use to sweeten drinks. Pick up a Fizzy Lizzy drink and note the real fruit and pulp that has floated to the bottom of the bottle. 

GuS, also known as Grown-Up Soda, was created with adults in mind. Aiming to be a natural, lighter alternative to cola, GuS contains 90 to 98 calories per 12-ounce bottle.  Also sweetened with pure cane sugar, GuS fruit sodas contain only 5 to 10 percent fruit juice. Its Extra Dry Ginger Ale is flavored with real ginger; Meyer Lemon with actual Meyer lemons; its Dry Cola with real kola-nut extract. Referring to his soda’s true pop taste, president Steve Hersh says, “People still like sodas. Bubbles haven’t gone out of style.”

Modeled after European sodas, sales of Izze Sparkling Juice took off like a bottle rocket after its 2002 launch. The first four years saw 200 percent growth every year, and Pepsi acquired the company in 2006. With 120 to 150 calories in each 12-ounce glass bottle, this drink’s sweet flavor comes solely from juice. 

Defined as a sparkling light fruit soda, the cane-sugar-sweetened Kristall offers flavors inspired by Swedish favorites, including Pear and Lingonberry. During the holidays, the company imports and bottles Julmust, a Swedish Christmas soft drink containing carbonated water, sugar, hops, malt extract, and spices. 

Maine Root sodas are made with fair-trade-certified and organic ingredients. Organic evaporated cane juice sweetens these handcrafted brews. Its Root Beer ingredients list includes extracts of clove, anise, and wintergreen. Other flavors include Ginger Brew and Sarsaparilla.

Each cane-sugar-sweetened Wild Fruitz sparkling juice contains at least 25 percent fruit juice. Created from the founder’s grandmother’s recipe for raspberry soda, Wild Fruitz prides itself on using characterizing flavors., a website devoted to beverage reviews and news, says this about Cranberry Wild Fruitz: “The flavor is very easy to describe: cranberry.” The company’s eight flavors include Watermelon and Huckleberry/Blueberry.

This list of natural sodas and sparkling juices is far form complete. Older, more established companies are still around, and new products keeping showing up at trade shows and in corner delis. “It’s a very interesting time,” says newsletter editor Khermouch. “There are just wonderful products made with real integrity, with rich ingredients, and interesting recipes. We’ll see if consumers will gravitate toward healthier products and bolder tastes.”

p(bio). Nancy Schatz Alton is a freelance writer and editor in Seattle, Washington. As a child, Coca-Cola was her beverage of choice.

Also on Culinate: An article about specialty sugars, and a look at high-fructose corn syrup.

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