It’s been called everything from the dry and dull “carbonated beverage” to the quaint and regional “pop.” Its flavors range from common fruits to strange concoctions, like Jones Soda’s Tofurkey and Gravy. It’s on the lips of everyone, from little kids at birthday parties to doctors who warn of its high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients and politicians who want to curb its intake in schools or tax it in an effort to fight back against the obesity epidemic and stimulate the economy.
It’s soda…where I’m from, anyway. Depending on your region or country, it’s – as I said before – called everything from “pop” to “soft drinks” to “carbonated beverages.” Other regional terms include “coke” (though I don’t know why people would use this, considering that that’s a very common slang term for cocaine. Then again, the original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it and cocaine was considered a perfectly acceptable sugar substitute before it was known for fueling disco dancers, being boiled down into the more insidious drug crack, and glamorized in the 1983 version of Scarface. Also, “coke” when you’re speaking of soda is mostly used when you’re drinking cola. You can have a Pepsi and still call it a coke – unless you’re in the Olympia Café on late 1970s Saturday Night Live), “lolly water” (which sounds like a very British term that’s probably not even used these days), and “fizzy drink” (which also sounds British, but also sounds like a brand name for dollar-store soda).
Soda is, of course, from the soda water that’s used as the canvas on which the soda maker can add flavor to it. “Soft drinks” are called that to differentiate from “hard drinks” (the drinks with alcohol in them). “Soft drinks” can have alcohol in them, but only less than 0.5% of the total volume, but most soda made in America (at least made by the two major chains, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) would rather load soda with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners moreso than a little alcohol (since alcohol’s effects can be amplified when in contact with carbonation. I’ve had a ginger ale with a splash of vodka in it and felt the room spin about 10 minutes later), never mind the reports that excessive consumption of soft drinks (especially soda) is linked to obesity, type II diabetes, loss of bone density, low nutrient levels, and cavities in your teeth (eventually leading to tooth decay). So, soda does rot your teeth, but not your brain, despite what those moral guardians and misguided social justice warriors will tell you. My opinion on all of this: all things in moderation. If you’ve been hooked on the fizzy stuff for a while, try and cut back. Switch it up with a good detox drink (mint and citrus-flavored water or just regular filtered water with some lemon in it) and always remember to brush your teeth, floss, and (if you can) visit the dentist.
Health public service announcements aside, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to instruct you on how to make homemade soda. Yes, I know it seems like something that can’t be done since it’s already available pre-made, but I had a homemade ginger ale from a farmer’s market when I lived in San Francisco, California that left me with a satisfying throat burn and didn’t feel like I was swishing my own spit in my mouth, so don’t come whining to me about how soda can’t be made by hand. With handmade soda, you get to make it in the purest way possible: with carbonated water, a sweetener (particularly cane sugar), and some kind of flavoring agent (a juice, purée, or syrup).
If you drink a lot of soda or soda water, you know it gets expensive over time. A six-pack of Pepsi can set you back $6.00, depending on sales tax (unless you’re in Delaware, where sales tax is not a thing), when, back in the 1990s, it was maybe $4.00 (assuming there’s no sale). I’m not the only one to think to myself: “I wonder if there is a way to carbonate my own water.” There are several ways. The easiest way is to just buy soda water or seltzer water (both of which can be found in grocery stores or any place that sells liquor and liquor accessories for home bars and parties) in bulk, but that only works if you have the cash, a home bar, or are starting a homemade soda business. For her 28th birthday, my sister bought herself a SodaStream* (which she has been wanting for a while). While it does save you a considerable amount of money in terms of buying soda and soda water, the costs are actually high and very hidden. The machine itself costs $90 (though my sister bought a $70 model. Either she found a less expensive model or she got a discount since she always shops at Amazon.com for everything from books to new shoes) and each carbon dioxide refill bottle costs $30 for each 33 oz cannister. If I were her and had some gadgeteer genius (the kind that gets you into those Institute of Technology colleges, like M.I.T.), I’d make my own carbonator with a big CO2 tank, some plastic tubing, and a carbonator cap hidden in an easy, yet ingenious way because a large CO2 tank would look awkward in a kitchen setting. For weird parties, like Halloween or raves, or if I want to experiment with something different, I’d find some dry ice and carbonate the water that way.
Until 1985, soft drinks were sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. As of 2010, in the United States, that’s been replaced with high-fructose corn syrup to lower cost. In Europe, sucrose dominates, because agricultural policies over there favor production of sugar beets and sugar cane over the production of corn (besides, corn is more abundant in North and Central America than it is in Europe). The deal with high-fructose corn syrup and human health is that it’s connected with diabetes, hyperactivity, hypertension, and fatty liver disease that isn’t caused by alcoholism. On the other hand, the human body breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose before it is absorbed by the intestines. Simple sugars such as fructose are converted into the same intermediates as in glucose metabolism. However, metabolism of fructose is extremely rapid and is initiated by fructokinase activity, which is not regulated by metabolism or hormones and proceeds rapidly after intake, promoting fatty acid and triglyceride synthesis in the liver, and increased blood lipid levels. The takeaway to all of this is either (a) all things in moderation, or (b) you’re better off trying to find or make soda with real sugar in it.
Sweeteners for “diet” sodas are no better than high-fructose corn syrup. While aspartame has been disproven in its claims that it causes cancer, neurotoxicity leading to neurological or psychiatric symptoms such as seizures, mood changes, and/or neuropsychiatric conditions in children (including ADHD), it does have a really awful aftertaste (to me, at least) and there are people out there who have an adverse reaction to it, though the worst they get from aspartame is a headache.
Cyclamate – the first sugar substitute to be used in “diet” sodas – is the sugar substitute that caused cancer in laboratory mice, which is a shame, as tasters at the time claimed that cyclamate actually tasted good for a sugar substitute. Fortunately, cyclamate is still available in some places outside of North America. Saccharin followed. Its taste was described as “metallic” or “bitter,” and was also alleged to be carcinogenic. However, it was never banned. Rather, foods with saccharin in it had to have warning labels put on it as part of the Saccharin Study, Labeling and Advertising Act, a United States federal statute enacting requirements for a scientific observation regarding the impurities in, potential toxicity, and problematic carcinogenicity of saccharin, signed into law in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until 2ooo.
All of this doesn’t really matter when making homemade soda – unless you somehow have high-fructose corn syrup barrels just stored in your pantry for use in everything from soft drinks to frozen food. All you really need to sweeten your homemade soda is either plain sugar (the same sugar you put in your morning coffee or tea). You can also create your own flavored syrup or use an alternate sweetener, like agave nectar (though that’s if you want your homemade soda to be super-indie, real “arthouse” obscure, which translates to “pretentious” for most people). When soft drinks were first starting out, honey was used as a sweetener. Maybe you could bring that back and do something with it.
As with any food you make, ingredient quality is the key, especially if you’re using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices for your soda. The store-bought sodas can have their “natural and artificial ingredients” label.
A simple fruit syrup is just sugar, water, and the fruit, herb, or spice of your choice boiled down into a thin, slightly sweet goo (think children’s cough medicine if it actually tasted good). If making syrup isn’t your thing, then you can go for a simple fruit purée with as much or as little sugar as you want into the carbonated water for an Italian-style soda. For sodas like root beer and ginger ale, yeast is added, so it’d be like brewing beer or kombucha.
Making imitation Pepsi or Coca Cola (which you can label as “Popsi” and “Kooki Kola” or do the old “blind taste test” by putting the imitation in empty brand name bottles to see if anyone can tell the difference) is probably the most difficult soda you can make because most of the ingredients are only available if you know a good high-end supermarket or can find rare and unusual ingredients online. Those ingredients are food-grade orange oil, lime oil, lemon oil, cassia oil, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, lavender oil, gum arabic (a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree; Senegalia and Vachellia), water, and vodka. The water and vodka you don’t have to look far for, but everything else takes some time and energy to find. On top of that, the directions as outlined on Unusual Food Handers (http://food-handler.blogspot.com/2008/02/coca-cola-how-to-make-coca-cola-at-home.html) make the whole thing like a chemistry class project, what with the use of syringes and high-ended beakers. If you’re looking for something more organic, then Salt and Smoke has a recipe for homemade cola syrup that tastes like “old-school” Coca-Cola (http://saltandsmokefood.com/botanical-cola-syrup/).
Ideas on My Own Sodas and Conclusion
Besides the usual homemade take on ginger ale, root beer, and cola, I am experimenting with fruit-, herb-, and spice-based soda mixes that haven’t been done before. Pineapple mint, white grape and rosemary – heck, maybe I can take that cranberry sauce I made during Thanksgiving and turn that into a soda (complete with ground cinnamon). Of course, all of this is tenative and those were the three ideas I had buzzing in my head ever since I decided that I might want to make and market my own soda.
So, remember to enjoy your soft drinks in moderation and always recycle your empties. My sister has enough in her room to pay off her student loans (with some left over to pay off half of mine).
Thanks, and happy eating and drinking.
*SodaStream also comes with a lot of manufacturing controversy, since its main facility is in a settlement in the occupied West Bank of Israel. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the settlement (including the Mishor Adumim SodaStream factory), was built on land taken from five Palestinian towns and two Bedouin tribes who have been evicted by the Israeli army, and these Israeli settlements in the West Bank are regarded by many as illegal under international law. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from European Union customs for products manufactured in the West Bank. Why? Because Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are outside the territorial scope of the EC-Israel Agreement. Human Rights Watch has come down on SodaStream for unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, while The United Church of Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway (all three Scandinavian countries) launched a campaign to boycott SodaStream’s products manufactured in the occupied West Bank.