Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to drink pop. This wasn’t something my parents were particularly strict about; it was just a hassle-free way to limit my sugar intake. Occasionally, my brother and I would be allowed a bit of Orange Crush or Grape Crush while out for dinner, but fizzy sodas were absent from our fridge. I had my first sip of cola in my senior year of high school; my friends gathered around me, as if I were putting on a show, doing a blind taste test of Pepsi versus Coke. I didn’t – and still don’t – like either.
My disinterest has continued into adulthood, though I’ve added heaps of coffee and carbonated water to my beverage repertoire. But lately, I’ve been soda curious. Now, with every trip to the grocery store and even while idly scrolling through social media, I can’t seem to escape low-sugar, “good for you” sodas that claim to be healthier alternatives mimicking the flavours and experience of your favourite soft drinks: indulgent colas, fruity pops and anything else that is bubbly and sweet and that your dentist would rather you avoid. It’s also about more than just sugar. Usually packaged in fun, nostalgic graphic cans, these sodas are typically loaded with either prebiotics (a substance that feeds the naturally occurring bacteria in our gut and helps them flourish) or probiotics (the beneficial bacteria that already exist in our digestive system).
And it’s not just my imagination or the expertly tailored algorithm. “Healthy” sodas are undeniably on the rise. According to international market-research firm Fact.MR, as of last year, the global probiotic-soda market was estimated to be worth US$210.4 million – a number that’s expected to grow by 7.7 percent by 2032. From the ubiquitous Olipop, which offers modern versions of childhood drinks (think Tropical Punch and Cherry Vanilla), to the new Better Sodas, from Montreal kombucha brand Rise, these beverages are everywhere. But, popular or not, one question nagged in my mind every time I came across a can: Can pop ever actually be good for you?
“Well, that kind of depends,” says Toronto-based registered dietitian Olivia Cupido. On the one hand, most of these sodas generally have far less sugar than a typical can of OG Coca-Cola (which comes in at 34 grams per 335 millilitres). On the other, some of these drinks have smaller serving sizes than expected and contain ingredients like sugar alcohols – which there’s nothing wrong with, but they could irritate your stomach if you’re prone to bloating or sensitivity, says Cupido.
While drinking beverages infused with prebiotics or probiotics will benefit your overall gut health, soda shouldn’t be your only, or even primary, source of these things, according to Tracey Frimpong, a registered dietitian at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “A food-first approach is best,” she says, pointing to foods like kimchi and yogurt, which are known to have positive effects on gut health. You’ll also get a greater variety of nutrients from eating different foods versus drinking a can of soda, she says, which better serves your gut health.
Ultimately, both pros agree: You shouldn’t be reaching for these sodas just to be “healthy,” but if you genuinely like them, you should feel free to enjoy them in moderation, just as you would any other soda. Any benefits should just be seen as an added bonus. Keeping that in mind, I set out on a search for some of the best functional-pop options out there, hoping it would go better than my underwhelming high school taste test. I still don’t know that I’m a full soda convert, but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
Pop the tab on one of these low-or-no sugar pops.
Raspberry Rose Soda,
Texas-based husband and wife duo Stephen and Allison Ellsworth launched their prebiotic soda in 2016 after Allison started drinking apple cider vinegar to improve her gut health and began experimenting with mixingthe sharp-tasting liquidwith more pleasant fruitjuices. They’ve since appeared on Shark Tank and have gone viral on TikTok with Poppi, and it’s easy to understand the hype: The prebiotics come from barely discernible apple cider vinegar, and the soda is perfectly carbonated and subtly sweet and comes in wide array of classic and innovative flavours, like the delightfully well-balanced tart-and-floral Raspberry Rose.
Lemon Lime Soda,
Cove Gut Healthy Soda
If you put a can of Cove up against a regular pop, I’d choose Cove every time – and the (tiny, very unofficial) sample of soda lovers I polled would too. Canadian brothers John and Ryan MacLellan launched the brand in 2016 when Ryan started brewing kombucha in their mom’s small-town Nova Scotia kitchen for fun. They became obsessed, moved to Halifax and have since expanded their business to include all-natural sodas packed with prebiotics and probiotics from ingredients like pink Himalayan salt and butterfly pea flower. Cove’s three flavours, including the bright Lemon Lime, hearken back to school pizza lunches in the best way possible.
U.S. brand Olipop is the first of these “good for you” sodas I came across, which makes sense given that, according to Nielsen data from late last year, the brand controls 61 percent of the market. Its prebiotics come from a variety of sources, including cassava and chicory roots, and it offers an almost overwhelming number of flavour options that bring a new twist to old faves. (Doctor Goodwin, for example, is Dr Pepper-inspired, with an unexpected blend of cherry, plum and prunes.) The brand does, however, use stevia as a natural sweetener, which comes in with a strong aftertaste that tends to overpower the more interesting notes contained within each can.
Pink Grapefruit & Ginger,
Culture Pop is not your grade-school pop. These irreverent cans are filled with ultra-fizzy sodas that are infused with gut-friendly Bacillus subtilis probiotics. But what truly sets apart this U.S. brand from the rest is the use of real or- ganic spices and herbs, which make each sip feel decidedly grown up. Pink Grapefruit & Ginger, for example, is complemented by a powerful bite of ginger, and the Wild Berries & Lime flavour is elevated with subtle hints of basil and peppercorn, while Orange Mango & Lime packs a little heat thanks to the presence of chili.
There is, unsurprisingly, no shortage of Canadian-made options available to try. Crazy D’s plant-fibre- and prebiotic-rich sodas are made in Toronto and were conceived by founder Darren Portelli, who started out selling his beverages at community farmers’ markets. While the drinks have a satisfying bubble, they are the least reminiscent of a classic soda, so you may not love them if you’re looking for a nostalgia-inducing alter- native. But the dynamic flavours, including the bold turmeric-enhanced Ginga’ Kick, hold up well on their own.