Soda is bad. The sweetened, fixing juice marketed at everyone from teens to the elderly is oft-accused of fattening and killing America, and is seen as a common enemy by health experts and weight loss aficionados alike. And while the soft drink industry is still valued at over $994 billion, Americans — miraculously — are slowly drinking less of the sugary stuff.
As of March 2016, soda consumption had fallen to a 30-year low with major beverages companies like Coca-Cola predicting a major loss in profits thanks to American’s decreasing interest in soda. Even PepsiCo reported slow earnings in Q4 2016 and has blamed local company layoffs on Philadelphia’s recently enacted soda tax, a policy that public health advocates across the country have been trying to legislate in cities ranging from New York to California in order to decrease soda purchasing.
As Americans are moving towards healthier foods, often willing to pay more for foods with higher nutritional value, what role does soda play in the ever-changing American grocery cart?
For major soda brands, creating a healthier, less sugary soda has been a priority in order to keep health-conscious consumers buying their products.
In September 2014 PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group all united to promise a 20 percent cut in calories in sugary drinks over the next decade, with products on shelves in 2025 representing this significant health change. However, the first years into this pledge only showed a drop by .2 percent of calories, the Economist reported.
So how will these major pop providers cut the calories?
PepsiCo may be leading the healthy soda upheaval. In October 2016, the beverage conglomerate purchased probiotic beverage maker Kevita. Just a month later, PepsiCo (which owns Aquafina) announced the February 2017 launch of its first-ever premium bottled water, LIFEWTR.
"What we see developing is a premium water segment of the water category, driven heavily by millennials," Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo's Global Beverage Group, told Fortune. He attributed the must-have, trendy bottles and luxurious looking labels to a reason a consumer may purchase LIFEWTR, rather than, perhaps, hydrating, which can be done at say, a free water fountain. "It is an important part of people's image," Jakeman said of what people are drinking. For over a decade, we’ve seen every class of American sipping on $6 Starbucks lattes similar to the ones clutched in celebrity paparazzi shots, an affordable liquid piece of the often prohibitably expensive lifestyle of the rich and famous.
But does soda fit in with the luster? It’s not often (if ever) that you see Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift caught throwing back a swig of Coke. And when Beyoncé signed a deal with Pepsi for a $50 million billboard advertisement in 2012, progressive fans and critics offered up plenty of backlash for the icon’s moneyed endorsement of a product so closely linked with obesity. “Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in,” Mark Bittman wrote in the New York Times, suggesting that if the superstar were approached for a semiautomatic rifle ad campaign she would hopefully say no. Soda is a rampant, if not delicious killer, and when the icons America idolize promote the dangerous beverage, what will become of those who cannot hire private nutritionists, personal chefs, splurge on the best healthcare and perhaps even afford nutritious alternatives to cheap, precarious processed foods.
But now, more than ever, regardless of celebrity endorsements, some Americans are choosing not to have soda as part of their regular diets. A recent Gallup poll showed that as of July 2015, 62 percent of Americans avoid soda, as opposed to only 41 percent of Americans who avoided soda circa July 2002. Similarly, as of July 2015, 50 percent of Americans tried to avoid sugar, while only 43 percent reported doing so in July 2002.
So is a soda with fewer sugars and calories even going to appeal to the soda-rejecting American public? And does this healthier soda have any role in a balanced diet?
"Sugar-sweetened beverages typically do not have much nutritional value,” Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, owner of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness, said. “A beverage made with less sugar than normal is better than the original, however should still be consumed only on occasion."
The success of soda, which often costs around $1 per can or bottle is based on its popularity, it’s inclusion in daily life, available everywhere from convenience store vending machines to tech office refrigerators to fast food restaurants and fine dining, Michelin-starred venues alike. Once-in-a-while beverages, like Champagne, though harder to produce (actual fruit is needed) retail at a much higher price point. If soda becomes more of a novelty, even a luxury item, can it survive?
1893, a PepsiCo product designed to “satisfy an elevated palate,” recently added flavors like citrus and black currant to its line designed to blend well with top shelf cocktails, appealing perhaps more to mixologists than McDonald’s fans. Made from kola nut extract, real sugar, sparkling water and the essence of each flavor’s respective fruit, this artisanal soda is destined to end up in a mixed drink, rather than be chugged down to chase a fast food cheeseburger. But still, will this glossy, night out soda give pop the boost it needs to stay relevant with consumers?
The healthy soda market is already plentiful with cutely branded sweetened, bubbly drinks to lure nutrition-conscious shoppers into the soda trap. 40-year-old Brooklyn health food store Perelandra stocks small batch, healthier sodas like Zevia, GUS and Q Drinks, which come in 9-ounce bottles (a typical soda can is 12 ounces) to also limit portion size.
"Health conscious consumers do buy [these sodas], and I would argue that they are a healthier alternative to traditional soda in that — the brands that we sell, at least — do not contain corn syrup, artificial colors or artificial flavors, which the majority of traditional sodas do contain,” Allison Buckingham, MBA, New York State licensed dietitian-nutritionist and co-owner of Perelandra said. Still, she notes that even these healthier alternatives, despite their all-natural ingredients, still contain sugars and calories and she strongly recommends “consuming any sweetened beverage in moderation.”
If the health-conscious set is still buying soda, even in moderation for special occasions or impromptu cocktail nights, healthier soda may actually have a future, if not a puny roll, in America’s growingly nutrition-minded landscape.
PepsiCo did not respond to a request for comment.