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What Are Soft Drinks?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated May 16, 2024
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Soft drinks are typically carbonated, non-alcoholic beverages, most of which are sweet. They’re normally made from a base of soda water with added syrups or flavors. The category is generally quite broad, and different beverages can be included in different places. Most of the time, the “soft” part of the name is in reference to the lack of alcohol; liquor-based drinks are frequently referred to as “hard.” Not all alcohol-free drinks are included within the common conception of a “soft drink,” though. Most juices and dairy beverages aren’t in the category, for instance. Those that are included tend to be sweet. The terms “soda” and “pop” are often synonyms, and many of the most popular flavors include cola, ginger ale, and fruit flavors like orange and grape. There are many possibilities, and some are more popular in certain regions than in others. They can vary in terms of sweetness and ingredients, too, though as a class these beverages have been the target of a lot of criticism in the health community, especially in recent years. Their high sugar content and lack of nearly any useful nutrient has been linked to excessive weight gain, particularly in people who consume them daily.

Soda Water Base

The most defining aspect of any soda-style drink is its carbonation. Most of the time, this comes from a soda water base. Soda water is basically an imitation mineral water; while mineral water is naturally carbonated and comes from springs in the earth, soda water is a man-made alternative usually created by forcing carbon dioxide gas into filtered water. The result is an effervescent liquid that must be corked or compressed, typically in aluminum, to maintain its bubbles if it isn’t going to be consumed right away.

Sometimes soda water itself is considered a soft beverage, but the category is most commonly associated with waters that have flavors or syrups added in. Modern soda fountains and drink dispensers in places like restaurants have concentrated syrups that are added to streams of soda water at controlled ratios, and major manufacturing operations usually make this combination in a factory, then bottle or can the results immediately for the freshest flavor on delivery to the customer. In the earliest days, though, these sorts of drinks were crafted by hand.

Earliest Iterations

Most researchers credit an Irish pharmacist with the creation of the first soft drink, in the form of what has become popularly known as “ginger ale,” in the 1850s. The name is a bit deceptive since the drink is not a typical ale; rather, it was made from sweetened and boiled ginger extract combined with sparkling water. The result was refreshing and restorative, and is widely credited with being the precursor of the robust range of today’s sodas.

Advent of Modern Cola

The first cola is though to have been created in the 1880s in the United States. Though the first iterations were made from mostly natural ingredients, particularly herbs and spices, as technology and food science advanced it became possible to imitate the flavor with mostly artificial and chemically-derived components.

For many years following their invention, these beverages were only available at soda fountains that were typically part of drug stores and pharmacies. Workers called soda jerks filled glasses with carbonated water and then added flavors to suit the customers. Bottled carbonated drinks only became available after the 1891 invention of corked bottles.

Today’s soft drinks may be sold in individual serving size containers or larger bottles. The individual sizes are ordinarily available in aluminum cans or plastic bottles, whereas larger sizes typically come packaged in plastic containers. Soda making machines or fountain machines are also common sources of drinks, both commercially and at home.

Health Concerns and Criticism

Sodas are often criticized in what’s been colloquially called the “obesity wars,” a primarily American phenomenon in which numerous adults and many young children are assuming weights considered unhealthy by most in the medical community. The high fat content of most easily available fast food is usually one of the prime targets, but the drinks that accompany these meals — in most cases, sodas and other beverages in the “soft” category — are frequently included. Part of the problem may be the size of the beverages dispensed by many restaurants. The advent of extra large cup sizes and things like free refills has meant that people may be consuming hundreds if not thousands of calories from the beverages alone.

Most health experts advise moderation. Not all drinks are the same when it comes to nutrient content, and “diet” and sugar free options are available in many places too, which can help. Some cities and municipalities have tried doing things like making laws prohibiting certain cup sizes and refill options, often with much negative press.

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Discussion Comments
By christym — On Sep 30, 2010

@snowywinter: I have another soft drink trivia for you. According to historians, what was U.S. Lyndon B. Johnson’s favorite soft drink?

Answer: Fresca. It is a citrus soft drink made by Coca-Cola. It is the only Coca-Cola product that doesn’t have a Pepsi equivalent.

By SnowyWinter — On Sep 30, 2010

This was a trivia question that we had at our church fun night.

Dr. Pepper/SevenUp, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola all have their brand of root beer. A&W Root Beer is the bestselling out of all of them, belonging to Dr.Pepper/SevenUp. Mug Root Beer was bought by Pepsi in 1986 and Barq’s is part of Coca-Cola. What is special about Barq’s root beer?

Answer: Barq’s is the only major root beer that contains caffeine.

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