How to choose soft drinks

Did you know Indian tonic water and flavoured tonic waters, although bitter, contain about the same amount of sugar and kilojoules as regular sweet-tasting soft drinks?

How about Kombucha? How close to a soft drink is it?

Sure, you know water is the drink of choice and you may be thinking, "why would you even go down the drink aisle?".

There are times when a flavoured or fizzy drink simply suits the occasion.

Here are seven reasons to re-visit the soft drink aisle:

1. It’s so hot outside! With temperatures rising above 30 C, your body needs more fluid than ever. Water doesn’t always satisfy on hot thirsty days.

2. It’s party season. You want to keep tabs on your alcohol intake to keep it down. You may think a glass of tap water looks a little boring or perhaps you want a good tasting sugar-free mixer for spirits.

3. Summer holidays are soon upon us. The kids and grandkids will pester for fizzy drinks and ice cream spiders but now you have a cooler option to keep them happy.

4. Time is short. You don’t always have time to infuse water with cut up lemon and lime wedges, lemongrass and fresh mint until their subtle flavour is released. Pre-infused drinks are convenient.

5. You need to lighten things up. Use the new breed of soft drink to make festive punch, jelly desserts, and icy poles without excess kilojoules or sugar.

6. Tap water tastes terrible. The taint of chlorine gives the impression of drinking pool water. You may not have time to boil the chlorine off and chill the water down.

7. Local water is contaminated or suspect. You are traveling and want to avoid tummy troubles that come with drinking local suspicious water sources. Sealed drinks are safer.

Cruise down the soft drink aisle and you’re hit with wall to wall drink displays. Amongst them is a new bunch of fizzy drinks without the fake taste of artificial sweeteners and without sugars but how and what do you choose?

It used to be easy.

The words ‘diet’, ‘low cal’ and ‘low joule’ sent a clear message that the drink is suitable for someone who enjoys sweet fizzy drinks but can’t afford to load up on sugar and extra kilojoules/calories (kJ/cals); someone who has diabetes, high triglyceride levels or who wants to lose weight or prevent weight regain.

But the ‘diet’ and ‘calorie’ words have lost favour with consumers. Now the labeling trend for soft drinks has shifted to claim ‘lite’, ‘no added sugar’, ‘sugar free’, ‘zero’, ‘low sugar’, ‘less sugar’, and ‘unsweetened’.

With carefully select imagery and crafted words on each vessel marketers hope they will match your desires and capture a sale.

These clever creative labels muddy the waters and trap you into buying a drink that is not quite as safe as it first seemed.

Not all of these are truly useful if you are cutting kJ (cals) and sugar to lose weight or you want to avoid weight regain after weight loss.

I want to share with you two tips to use next time you buy a fizzy drink.


The first and quickest way to check if a soft drink is low in energy (kJ/cals) and low in sugars is to scan the nutrition panel.

Look for less than 20 kJ in the 100 ml column. Water is zero kJ.

Look past the imagery and words because the front of pack label claims for sugar content are tricky to interpret.

Ignore front of pack claims, names and imagery that imply a lower sugar content, light or liteness. I will explain why later.

After this, is a second optional step that matches my preferred fizzy drink choice.

Check the ingredient list is really, really short. Two or three ingredients only. A very short list means you are more likely to avoid any added intense sweeteners, preserving agents, colours and other obscure additives.

This second step is optional because I am not convinced that a conservative intake of soft drink (say a can or two a day) sweetened with intense sweeteners or containing additives is harmful to your weight.

The evidence to date convinces me that:

  • sugar-sweetened drinks will stall weight loss and contribute to weight regain
  • sugar-sweetened drinks raise blood glucose levels (not good for anyone with diabetes unless needing to treat a hypo)
  • both sugar- and intense-sweetened drinks can cause dental problems if you don’t have much saliva or your mouth is dry (e.g. you haven’t been drinking enough water)
  • both sugar- and intense-sweetener drinks alter the variety and balance of bacteria in the gut, and
  • drinks sweetened only with intense-sweeteners are a positive choice for anyone who needs to avoid sugar and the excess kJs that come with it (people with diabetes, high blood triglycerides, high body fat) BUT emerging research indicates an unhappy link between intensely sweetened drinks and stroke for people who drink them often. Aim to keep your diet intake less than one drink a day if you choose to drink them regularly.

    If you suspect soft drinks are not helping you or reinforce your desire for sweet flavours, read on and swap to my first preferred choice from the soft drink aisle.


    Apart from water, what are my preferred soft drink aisle choices?


    1. Clear sparkling water or mineral water with a hint of fruit essence flavour. No extra sweetness needed. No fake, intense, artificial or real sweeteners added. Refreshingly unsweetened.

    2. Plain un-flavoured soda water or mineral water. If you need to cut back on sodium intake, drink soda water rather than mineral water.

    3. No-sugar fizzy drinks and mineral waters sweetened with an intense sweetener such as stevia (steviol glycosides), neotame, aspartame, cyclamate, sucralose, thautamin, acesulphame K, sorbitol, monk fruit, and erythritol. If you want a really sweet tasting drink without added sugars or with less added sugars, these are suitable.

    4. Make your own fizzy drink at a strength to match your tastebuds by combining a low joule ‘diet’ cordial with plain soda water or sparking mineral water.

    5. Can’t handle the fizz? Try a ‘diet’ cordial mixed with tap or bottled water. The beauty of cordials is you can add less of the cordial base to easily reduce the flavour intensity. A teaspoon may be enough to mask the taste of chlorinated tap water.

    I have included a linked table with a few brand names and flavour varieties with sweetener profiles to help you get started but because brand-name lists date very quickly, I encourage you to always zoom in quickly on soft drink nutrition panels to find a drink variety with less than 20 kJ in 100 ml. This is the rare time suggest label reading.

    I am also waiting on information from a few manufacturers whose website info was either erroneous or missing. Updates will be made to the table as soon as the info arrives.

    You can avoid both sugars and intense sweeteners (used to be called artificial sweeteners). I do.

    check the label

    less than 20 kJ in 100 ml

    fewer than 3 ingredients

    More about why label claims for sugar content are tricky to interpret.

    By law, drinks labelled as ‘low energy’,’low cal’, or ‘low joule’ contain 80 kilojoules or less per 100 ml or up to 60% of the kJs in the same amount of reference drink.

    It doesn’t sound much but for anyone with a big thirst who downs a 1.25 L bottle (with 80 kJ/100 ml) during the course of a hot day, the kJs sneak up enough to stall progress. Drink a 1.25 Litre bottle over the course of a day and you’ve drunk up to 1000 kJ. That’s why I recommend you scan the nutrition panel to look for less than 20 kJ in 100 ml of drink. That's also why I show energy per 100 ml and per 1 Litre in the table of brand names.

    Note that I have no affiliation with the brands listed in the table. This work represents a collation of information supplied by manufacturers as interpreted by me. Some manufacturers failed to supply information in time for this product review. If and when they supply information, I will update the table.

    There are plenty of drinks available with less than 20.

    In between the ‘low cal’ (diet, zero) and regular sugar soft drinks sit drinks with sugar claims:

    Low sugar’ means the drink contains no more than 2.5 g of sugars per 100 ml, which is fine if you don’t finish the entire bottle/can and only drink a small amount: a metric cup of drink contains up to 6.25 g (1 heaped teaspoon) sugar. But drink one litre to swallow up to 25 g (6 teaspoons) sugar. Low sugar drinks typically get their sweetness from a combination of sugar and intense sweeteners. Flip to the nutrition panel to confirm the energy content is less than 20 kJ per 100ml.

    Low sugar means the drink contains less sugar than similar drinks in the market place. It doesn’t mean no sugar. It also doesn’t necessarily mean less sweet because non-sugar intense sweeteners such as 952, 950, 955 may be added along with sugar. The ‘low sugar’ drinks I spotted contained 5-7 tsp (20-30 g) sugar and 420-500 kJ per litre; sugar- and energy-wise, this is equal to eating 3 cups of diced watermelon. You’d get a full feeling and more nutrients with the melon but would barely notice the drink.

    In food standards law, ‘lite, light or reduced sugar’ means the drink contains at least 25% less sugars that in the same amount of a reference drink. The amount of sugar and kJs present varies but it could be around 19 tsp (82 g) sugar and 1400 kJ in one litre. Flip to the nutrition panel to confirm the energy content is less than 20 kJ per 100ml.

    Less sugar’ is no reason to cheer when it comes to soft drinks. Although ‘less sugar’ drinks may have half the sugar load of regular soft drinks, you’ll swill down a hefty 14 tsp (50-60 g) sugar and around 900 kJ in a single litre; not something anyone needs.

    No added sugar on a drink label is of no real help to you. Ignore claims of no added sugar.

    There is too much wriggle room for manufacturers add sugar in the form of concentrated or de-ionised fruit juice to brewed soft drink, electrolyte drinks, fruit juice juice blend, fruit drink, vegetable juice, mineral water, spring water and non-alcoholic beverages and yet still claim those drinks as ‘no added sugar’.

    Unsweetened means the drink does not contain any sweetening agents (neither added sugars nor intense sweeteners, sorbitol, mannitol, glycerol, xylitol, isomalt, maltitol syrup or lactitol) and is usually a good choice if it’s soft drink. Flip to the soft drink’s nutrition panel to confirm the energy content is less than 20 kJ per 100ml.

    Where does Kombucha fit?

    Commercially bottled kombucha has a wide variation in kJ and sugar content. Of the kombucha drinks available in supermarkets, only two came close to containing less than 20 kJ per 100 ml. The rest were higher with up to 212 kJ per 100 ml. If you like the sharp taste of kombucha and made a swap from regular sugar-sweetened drinks, you are in a better position but don’t assume that the drink of your choice is ultra-low kJ or free of sugars. Most aren’t. Typically, kombucha drinks yield around 420 kJ in a Litre; equal to eating 3 cups diced watermelon without the fill factor.

    I see kombucha drinks moving the way of yoghurt, from their original tart and sharp beginnings to a toned down, sweetened-up drink for the mass market.

    I position commercial supermarket varieties of kombucha drinks along side de-alcoholised and alcohol-free beers. A handy alternative to alcoholic drinks that trends well socially. Not kilojoule-free but lower in kJ than regular beer and regular soft drinks. Note that kombucha brews on tap in pubs and made at home with a long fermentation period will have a higher alcohol and kJ content.

    More about Kombucha another time.