No longer confined to just the age-old Coke vs. Pepsi debate, the soda aisle is now exploding with options that make all sorts of promises. Whether brands insist they’re improving your health or getting close to your favorite alcohol-free cocktail, this new breed of soda is decidedly more complex than its predecessors in almost every way.
They’re fancier too. Rather than being made with caramel color and myriad artificial flavors, these drinks are infused with ingredients like rose, basil, and cardamom to create sophisticated flavor profiles. As such, they’re slightly more expensive than the typical can of soda, starting at around $2, and can often be found in fancy markets rather than the drugstore. But they’re still worth seeking out, especially if you’re fed up with your current rotation.
To sort through this onslaught of new soda options, I’ve tried more than a dozen fancy sodas, from those that insist they make your gut healthier to juice-infused seltzer that’s a lot more exciting than a boring old one Diet Coke.
The “functional” options
Not only do these drinks quench your thirst, but they proudly claim that they will improve your health in one way or another. Some are made with prebiotics that nourish the gut flora, while others claim to contain calming compounds like CBD and L-theanine that help relieve stress. Whether that’s actually true or not, these drinks taste good enough to take a chance.
Poppi has taken social media by storm thanks to its colorful cans and promises of prebiotics, or botanicals, that promote the growth of gut flora. The brand offers classic soda flavors like root beer and cola, as well as more creative pairings like raspberry rose and cherry lemonade, all made with less sugar thanks to the addition of stevia. While cola and root beer are pretty good for “healthy” sodas, the raspberry-rose flavor is definitely worth trying, even if you don’t care about the supposed benefits.
Each can of Olipop is also packed with prebiotics and contains around 9 grams of fiber, which the brand says can help boost your digestive health. Amazingly, it doesn’t taste quite as “healthy” as you might expect, thanks to sweet flavors like Orange Squeeze and Cherry Vanilla. The vintage cola flavor is among the best – it’s a bit spicy and plenty of fizz, making it perfect for sipping over lots of ice.
Unlike the prebiotic sodas mentioned above, Culture Pop actually contains probiotics, or tiny bacteria that can help your bowels move more smoothly. It’s a solid alternative for people who can’t stand the vinegary taste of kombucha, and comes in flavors like basil-lime or wild berry and pink pepper. As a bonus, it contains no artificial sweeteners or stevia, meaning it doesn’t have the chemical taste that taints many “healthy” sodas.
This “functional” drink foregoes caffeine and other energizing ingredients in favor of hemp, magnesium, and adaptogens, all of which promise calming, stress-reducing benefits. Flavors like Blood Orange and Peach Ginger are made with real fruit juices and no artificial sweeteners, meaning they have just the right amount of sugar without being overpowering.
The Selters border
Seltzer is ubiquitous on supermarket shelves today, and many of the latest iterations of the fizzy drink add juice, botanical flavors, and other ingredients that transform these drinks beyond the classic clear seltzer. These are the best of this new generation of seltzer drinks.
Although it technically belongs in the seltzer category, thanks to the addition of juice, Sanzo is a solid soda alternative. It’s not as dry as typical seltzer and has a slight sweetness that makes it perfect for lunch or as a cocktail mixer. The best flavor is calamansi, a citrus fruit popular in Filipino cuisine, but don’t fall asleep on the lychee and yuzu ginger varieties.
For those who loved orange soda as a kid but now find their taste buds too refined for a crush, there’s San Pellegrino Aranciata. Made with Pellegrino’s legendary mineral water and orange juice, it’s an original, fancy lemonade made in Italy since 1932. The brand makes other fruit sodas, including the lemon-flavoured Limonata, but Aranciata is the best of the range thanks to this way. The orange works with the mineral flavor profile of Pellegrino. The Aranciata Rossa, or blood orange, is equally compelling.
Citrus lovers know: there is no more coveted flavor than the floral, lemony yuzu. Kimino makes their sparkling juice and sparkling water in flavors like ume (plum) and Fuji Ringo apple, but the yuzu flavor is the most desirable — and in my experience, the easiest to find. It’s made from yuzu fruit harvested on the Japanese island of Shikoku, and both the juice and sparkling water are great for drinking neat or adding to a summery cocktail.
The most adult lemonades for adults
Whether you’re staying away from alcohol or just looking for a more nuanced flavor profile, these sodas take cues from classic cocktails thanks to the addition of ingredients like bitters and citrus to produce a truly sophisticated sip from the can.
Bitter addicts must try Casamara Club’s lemonades, all of which are inspired by amaro, or bitter Italian liqueurs. The Alta flavor is said to evoke the bitter citrus flavor profile of a classic non-alcohol Negroni, while Como is bright and complex, blending tangerine with mint and floral flavors.
Hella Bitters & Soda
For centuries people have consumed the classic combination of mineral water and bitters for medicinal purposes. Hella packages the cocktail for today’s health-conscious drinker in an elegant can and with the addition of gentian root, a common ingredient in popular bitters like angostura. Try the option inspired by a classic Aperol spritz or the award-winning ginger turmeric.
Billed as a “non-alcoholic aperitif,” Ghia is definitely something for grown-ups. The brand’s canned option, Le Spritz, comes in two different flavors – the classic ghia soda and ginger. The classic is a balanced and nuanced combination of flavors like elderflower, lemon balm extract and Riesling grape juice, and the ginger turns heads with a touch of spice.
Louie Victa is a chef, recipe developer, food and beverage photographer and stylist based in Las Vegas.