Around 63% of American adults drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. Coca-Cola was the top non-alcoholic beverage in 2022 and 2021, with Pepsi coming in second, according to brand valuation consultancy firm Brand Finance.
And while vintage Coca-Cola bottles conjure nostalgia and a chilled glass of root beer may remind us of childhood, soda (pop, or soda-pop) isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. With a high sugar content and possible adverse effects from diet sodas, in excess, they can be a hazard to our health. Here’s what an expert has to say about making the healthiest choice.
What is the healthiest soda?
Sorry, there isn’t a “healthiest” soda when it comes to the traditional soft drink. Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Sprite, Mountain Dew – whatever your preference, a similar-sized soda will have around the same sugar and caffeine content.
But there are a few “healthier” ways to consume soda, says registered dietitian Chris Mohr. To start, you can swap for a smaller can size: A 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola, for example, contains 65 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association’s daily sugar limit recommendation is 36 grams for men and 25 grams for women.
But if you’ve simply *got* to have your afternoon Coke, a 7.5-ounce mini can is a better choice with 25 grams of sugar.
Another quick change could be grabbing a diet soda. Diet soda contains artificial sweeteners instead of sugar, so you’re consuming far less sugar and calories than you would in a regular soda. It may be better than a regular soda, but neither is a great option, says Mohr – in fact, the World Health Organization announced this week aspartame (found in diet sodas) is a possible carcinogen. The occasional aspartame-sweetened drink is safe, the WHO says, but heavy users should cut down.
‘Healthiest’ sugar substitute?: What you need to know about artificial sweeteners
Why is soda bad for you?
The biggest red flag looming over soda is that it doesn’t contain any nutritional value. Our bodies need protein, fat, complex carbohydrates and other vitamins to survive, and soda doesn’t add any quality – just added sugar.
“They add a huge chunk of that sugar that we’re already overconsuming,” Mohr says. Sugary drinks, including soft, fruit, and energy drinks, are the largest source of added sugar in American diets.
According to the CDC, consuming too many sugary drinks can lead to weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and tooth decay. It’s also associated with lower intakes of milk, calcium and other nutrients.
Can an occasional soda make its way into your diet without health consequences? Sure, Mohr says.
“If it’s Friday night pizza and you want to have a soda, great. But I would definitely not recommend a daily soft drink by any means,” Mohr says. “I think most people who do drink sodas are drinking too much.”
Does healthy soda exist?
Colorful health sodas with viral marketing strategies are popping up in a grocery store near you. They’re called “prebiotic” and “probiotic” sodas, boasting less sugar, added fiber and fruit juice.
Olipop has “Vintage Cola” and “Classic Root Beer” flavors. Poppi has a “Doc Pop” Dr. Pepper rival. Culture Pop has a “Lemon Lime” flavor. According to Mohr, these nontraditional sodas can be a great swap if you’re craving a soda but want to make a healthier choice.
“From a flavor standpoint, as someone who doesn’t drink sodas I do think they’re pretty comparable and significantly better for you,” Mohr says. “They’re also significantly more expensive.”
They’re better than traditional soda, but they’re “not miracle cures,” he says. Probiotics contain live microorganisms that increase the amount of beneficial microbes in our body, which help fight bad bacteria and keep us healthy. Prebiotics are infused with plant fibers that feed microorganisms living in our guts. But nutrition experts told The Washington Post they doubt the sodas are enough to make a significant prebiotic effect and should not be seen as a “shortcut” to get more fiber.
How to cut down on soda
Quitting soda cold turkey can be tough, especially because sugar and caffeine can both be addictive. Instead, Mohr recommends cutting down before you cut out.
“Could you try cutting back to just one less than you’re drinking now?” Mohr says.
He also recommends a practical approach – fill your cup to the brim with ice so it’s taking up a lot of space. You’ll unconsciously feel like you’re drinking a normal amount of soda while drinking less.
What to drink instead of soda
You can also try swapping traditional soda for a less sugary drink. Ask yourself this question: Why are you craving soda in the first place?
“It depends on the itch you want to scratch,” Mohr says.
If you’re looking for flavor, try a healthier soda’s spin on a classic flavor. Mohr also recommends kombucha: Normal kombucha doesn’t taste like soda, but you can find mock root beer and cream soda flavors.
If you want the bubbles, a simple swap is seltzer water. Seltzer comes flavored, sweetened with fruit juice or simply plain and carbonated.
If caffeine is what you seek, Mohr recommends turning to tea or coffee before soda. A homemade or storebought cup of joe likely has even more caffeine than a can of soda – a 12-ounce cup of coffee will have around 120-160 milligrams of caffeine and Pepsi has a little less than 40 milligrams.
Fiber-rich foods: Here’s how to get more in your diet
Discover more health tips for your daily diet:
Just Curious for more? We’ve got you covered
USA TODAY is exploring the questions you and others ask every day. From “What is tonic water?” to “What is a speakeasy?” to “How long do cats live?”, we’re striving to find answers to the most common questions you ask every day. Head to our Just Curious section to see what else we can answer for you.