Pop Goes the Fruit Juice

Americans drink close to 14 billion gallons of soft drinks each year, a staggering figure that works out to a gallon of the fizzy stuff each week for every person in the United States. It's no secret that two major players dominate the soft drink industry: Coca-Cola and Pepsico control 40 percent and 30 percent of the market, respectively. Yet even with at least a half-dozen Coke and Pepsi products available at every quick-stop, a less visible segment of the soft drink market is also booming.Health food has gone mainstream in the Nineties, with specialty shops popping up in shopping malls and supermarkets in even the tiniest of towns boasting a natural food section. Just past the natural hair dye and not far from the aromatherapy candles, you'll find a dizzying selection of "natural" sodas. Essentially fruit juice or herb-infused concoctions, these refreshing drinks go against the grain of popular merchandising. Packaging runs the gamut from boldly lettered cans to bottles with intricate, somewhat surreal illustrations. The names and flavors of these sodas are as unique as the packaging, from American Pie Cherry to Mango Fandango to Vermont Maple Ale (with "perky Yankee herbals," no less). These soft drinks are quite distinctive and just the thing for someone craving the bubbly treat of soda and the light taste of fruit juice. What makes these soft drinks "natural" is debatable, of course. Perhaps most telling is that they are sold primarily in natural food stores and, in regular supermarkets, won't often be found on the same shelf as traditional soft drinks. Most avoid any preservatives or artificial flavors, relying on ingredients such as juice or juice concentrate for their sweetness; others include corn or maple syrup. Otherwise, ingredients are straightforward, whether spices such as nutmeg and clove or extracts such as sarsaparilla and dandelion. California's R.W. Knudsen and Vermont's After the Fall are two big players in the natural soda market, and their products can easily be found in area natural food stores. After the Fall is also affiliated with Alternative Attitudes, makers of Kizz natural soda and the Tropical Attitude line of non-carbonated drinks. The big distinction is that After the Fall uses only fruit juice for its beverages, while Alternative Attitude products can use sweeteners such as fructose. Here's a rundown of natural sodas found during a recent survey of local health food stores. Prices per can or bottle are comparable to the cost of regular soft drinks, usually between 50 and 75 cents per can and between 75 cents and $1 per bottle. Some selections are also available in four- or six-packs. "Creamies Amaretto Almond." After the Fall's flavored juice soda from concentrate is better than you might think. Pale brown in the glass, it releases a sweetly stinging bouquet that hits the tongue with a subtle nut flavor augmented with real vanilla bean essence. This beverage is somewhat like cream soda, but with a pleasing, nutty aspect. Go for it. "Peruvian Passion Flower." Journey Food and Beverages bills its line of drinks as "moderately herbal and globally refreshing." This particular entry is pretty in a glass, and its rich, light rose hues let loose with a light effervescence and flavor that isn't too sweet. Not cloying at all, this is a new taste: tropical, exotic and very unfamiliar. Ingredients include passion flowers, damiana and extracts of citrus acid and natural flavors. This may be unfamiliar stuff for some folks, but try it just for fun. (Journey Food and Beverages is also responsible for "Vermont Maple Ale", an entry containing "a splash of dandelion and pure sarsaparilla root extracts.") "Mango Fandango." R.W. Knudsen's juice-flavored sparkling beverage from concentrate comprises pure sparkling water, concentrated white grape juice, mango puree, passion fruit juice and natural flavors. A bit cloudy in the glass, its color is a murky gold. Fruity on the tip of the tongue, sparkling in the mouth and not heavy at all, this is refreshing, full of mango magic, clean and with little aftertaste. This would be great as a mixer with a shot of vodka or even some dark rum. "Reeds Original Ginger Brew." This all-natural, Jamaican-style ginger ale is OK, but not a real winner. It has a musty flavor override that caught a recent group of tasters off-guard. Accents of ginger root and honey redeem it somewhat. "Siberian Sun Ginseng Brew." Another Journey Food and Beverages entry, this drink contains Siberian Ginseng extract. The color of dark cola in a glass, this liquid strikes the nose with a medicinal, earthy scent. It doesn't taste too bad, save for the rich, deep and mysterious herbal tones reminiscent of freshly tilled soil. And then there's "Orbitz." Be clear, this Clearly Canadian entry isn't what most people refer to as a natural soda. While the bottle declares Orbitz to be a "natural, fruit-flavored beverage," the ingredients list includes high fructose corn syrup, xantham gum and added colors. Further, it's found in these parts at outlets such as Weathervane in Carousel Center, a clothing shop that rings the $2 bottle up under "accessories." Regardless, this seemed as good a reason as any to try this phantasmagoric stuff. The vanilla-orange flavor consists of a clear liquid base holding tiny orange globs of sugar in unsettling suspension. "Defy gravity" is the catch phrase here, and the tapioca-like floaters stay suspended in the liquid. Be prepared when you take a swig of this stuff: The tiny globules slide into the mouth like oversized orange pulp in orange juice, then melt away on the palate. The flavor is fairly neutral with detectable essence of orange and vanilla. Overall, it's a very visual, very textured beverage. Natural sodas are a good bet to liven up a lunch box or wean caffeine fiends off the heavy stuff. Save the Orbitz, however, for a special occasion; throw it in a tall glass with some ice cubes, a shot of vodka and let the party begin. This stuff is a trip.Additional research by Christina Schwab.

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