Q: I’m a pretty healthy and eco-conscious consumer — and by consume I mean eat — but there’s one environmentally dubious habit I just can’t seem to break: my love of diet soda (AKA my “lifeblood”). I guzzle it by the gallon even though I’m fully aware of the complete void of nutritional value of the stuff and the not-so-great health effects of key ingredients like phosphoric acid, aspartame and, of course, the devil as I know it, caffeine. I know there are worse vices out there than enjoying a delicious sugar-free soda now and then, but I’m trying to wean myself off of it. Are there such things out there as natural or organic diet sodas (with an emphasis on diet)? I’m open to all ideas but I don’t know if I can part with caffeine at this point … the added synthetic chemicals I can certainly do without.
Lovin’ artificially sweetened brown liquids,
– Randy, Bellevue, Wash.
First off, you’re not alone. As a fellow caffeine-head who gets his fix via diet soda (I can’t do coffee … too rough on my sensitive tummy), I know what it’s like to crave the good stuff. If I don’t have a few gulps first thing in the morning, stay far away … I’m known to throw things and use words that would make even Kathy Griffin (a fellow diet soda addict) blush. However, I, like you, could do without all those scary but oh-so-tasty manmade chemicals.
Unfortunately, I have some bad news for both of us. While there are many natural sodas sans artificial colors, flavors and preservatives out there — some even boast certified-organic ingredients — easily accessing one that’s diet and caffeinated may prove to be difficult. Here’s the thing: The caffeine found in most sodas is, yep, a chemical, and sodas that boast all-natural ingredients understandably avoid adding it.
And things get even more tricky when it comes to the “diet issue.” When eschewing fat-making ingredients like sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup, conventional diet soda brands add artificial sweeteners. This, of course, cancels out any eco-friendly “naturalness.” So, my friend, it’s looking to be a lose-lose situation: You may be quenching your thirst with the more “healthy” (but still non-nutritional) choice but there’s no getting around those synthetic chemicals.
You’re probably wondering what makes natural sodas natural? Well, aside from an absence of chemical caffeine, artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, natural sodas substitute high fructose corn syrup with pure (sometimes organic) cane sugar. High fructose corn syrup, as you’ve probably heard, has been fingered as being one of the culprits behind America’s obesity epidemic and a cause of diabetes. Although this corn-based sweetener — producing HFCS is the second largest use of corn in America after livestock feed — has the about the same caloric value as regular old sugar, it has a much worse rep. That said, conventional corn and sugar production are both Mother Nature non-approved due to the use of polluting, habitat-destroying chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
So things may be looking a bit grim, dear Randy: Drinking non-caffeinated, natural soda, despite being more planet-friendly, might make you fat due to the presence of pure, organic cane sugar and won’t give you that buzz you crave. Drinking buzz-filled, non-natural diet soda won’t make you fat but is decidedly less planet-friendly. Are there any exceptions? Well, I think I found one.
Cricket Cola, a boutique (read: possibly hard to find and more pricey) natural soda outfit brews regular (pure cane sugar) and diet (Splenda) kola nut-based sodas that are sans phosphoric acid, high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients. And, drum roll please, Cricket is caffeinated … the makers of Cricket replace chemical caffeine with freshly brewed green tea. And get this, many of the key ingredients in Cricket may be healthy for you.
If you’re willing to give the non-traditional route a try, here’s another option: Steaz Sparkling Green Teas. These naturally caffeinated (!) and carbonated green tea/soda hybrids are chock-full of healthy and USDA-certified organic ingredients. Steaz Sparkling Green Teas are available in a range of flavors but be aware that even the diet varieties do contain some sugar/calories.
So, Randy, those are two almost perfect options to consider, although taste- and price-wise they’ll take some adjusting. And here’s one other thought: Why not try going cold turkey or reducing your caffeine intake this year? This, as you can imagine, will also curb the packaging-related eco-woes behind soda production. Horrifying to think about, I know, but worth a shot. Just don’t contact me when you’re feeling foul-mouthed, headachy and crazed due to lack of “lifeblood,” okay?