Soft Drinks

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 76 soft drink brands.

We also look at water extraction and sugar lobbying, shine a spotlight on the ethics of LemonAid and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying soft drinks:

  • Is it Fairtrade? Sugar, vanilla, stevia and many other ingredients used in soft drinks have been linked to serious human rights issues such as child labour and land grabs. Look for a Fairtrade drink to ensure that the workers growing the ingredients have received fair wages and conditions.

  • Is it organic? Often made from petroleum, chemical pesticides threaten bee populations, contaminate water sources, and cause large-scale destruction of habitats. Look for organic to avoid ingredients grown with these chemicals. 

  • Is it homemade? It is suprisingly easy to make soft drinks at home, and by doing so you can minimise packaging and food miles. Use Fairtrade and organic ingredients to cut down on our impact.

Best Buys

Our Best Buys are all organic [O] and / or Fairtrade [F]:

Recommended buys

Soft Drinks: Zingers organic

Squashes, Cordials: Belvoir Organic, Rocks Organic 

Flavoured Waters: One Drinks

Mixers: Luscombe organic tonic waters, Britvic, Fentimans or Fever-Tree are the best widely available options.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying soft drinks:

  • Is it in a plastic bottle? The plastic in our oceans could circle the planet 400 times. It is threatening marine ecosystems and contributing to climate change. Look for cans or glass bottles to cut down on waste and resources used.

  • Profits over people? This industry includes some companies that are notorious for the human rights abuses in their supply chains - from accusations of murdering unionists to siphoning water from drought-ridden communities. Look for a Fairtrade cola instead.

  • Is it grown using pesticides? For agricultural workers and local people, the health impacts of extensive agrochemical use are numerous, not to mention the environmental issues. Opt for organic soft drinks to avoid agricultural ingredients grown with pesticides.

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding the most famous company in this guide: The Coca-Cola Company. The multinational has been accused extracting drinking water from drought-ridden areas; of violence against trade unionists in South America; and of marketing its products to children under 12. It's brands in this guide are:

    • 5-Alive
    • Appletiser
    • Fanta
    • Glaceau
    • Honest Tea
    • Kia-Ora
    • Lilt
    • Minute Maid
    • Oasis
    • Rose's
    • Sprite

    Score table

    Updated live from our research database

    ← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
    Brand Score(out of 20)

    ChariTea iced teas [O,F]

    Company Profile: Lemonaid Beverages Ltd
    17

    Gingerella Ginger Ale [O, F]

    Company Profile: Karma Cola UK Limited
    17

    LemonAid [O, F]

    Company Profile: Lemonaid Beverages Ltd
    17

    Lemony Lemonade [O, F]

    Company Profile: Karma Cola UK Limited
    17

    Luscombe soft drinks [O]

    Company Profile: Luscombe Drinks Ltd (previously Luscombe Cider Ltd)
    15.5

    One Flavoured and Juiced Waters

    Company Profile: The One Foundation
    14

    Ginger Zinger [O]

    Company Profile: James White Drinks
    13.5

    Belvoir organic pressés & cordials [O]

    Company Profile: Belvoir Farming Company Limited (previously Belvoir Fruit Farms Ltd)
    13

    Rocks organic soft drinks, cordials, squashes [O]

    Company Profile: Rock's Drinks Ltd (previously Rock's Organic Ltd)
    13

    Great Uncle Cornelius soft drinks

    Company Profile: James White Drinks
    12.5

    Zingers

    Company Profile: James White Drinks
    12.5

    Belvoir pressés and cordials

    Company Profile: Belvoir Farming Company Limited (previously Belvoir Fruit Farms Ltd)
    12

    Britvic soft drinks and mixers

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    Drench soft drinks

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    Fruit Shoot soft drinks

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    J2O soft drinks

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    Purdey's soft drinks

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    R Whites soft drinks

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    Robinsons squash

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    Rocks non-organic squashes

    Company Profile: Rock's Drinks Ltd (previously Rock's Organic Ltd)
    12

    Tango soft drinks

    Company Profile: Britvic Plc
    12

    Barr carbonated beverages

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    D'n'B Dandelion & Burdock

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    Fentimans soft drinks

    Company Profile: Fentimans Ltd
    11.5

    Fever-tree sparkling drinks

    Company Profile: FEVERTREE LTD
    11.5

    Irn-Bru drinks

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    KA soft drinks

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    Ocean Spray soft drinks

    Company Profile: Refresco UK B.V.
    11.5

    Rubicon carbonated beverages

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    Sun Exotic soft drinks

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    Tizer soft drinks

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    11.5

    Ben Shaws Soft Drinks

    Company Profile: Cott Beverages Inc.
    11

    Calypso juice drinks

    Company Profile: Cott Beverages Inc.
    11

    Old Jamaica Ginger Beer

    Company Profile: Cott Beverages Inc.
    11

    Whole Earth vegan soft drinks [O]

    Company Profile: Whole Earth Foods Ltd
    11

    Franklin and Sons soft drinks

    Company Profile: Global Brands (GBL) Holdings Limited
    10.5

    Free & Easy soft drinks

    Company Profile: Healthy Food Brands Ltd
    10.5

    PLj lemon and lime cordials

    Company Profile: Healthy Food Brands Ltd
    10.5

    Snapple soft drinks

    Company Profile: AG Barr plc
    10.5

    Bottle Green soft drinks and cordials

    Company Profile: BOTTLEGREEN HOLDINGS LTD
    8.5

    Feel Good soft drinks

    Company Profile: Nichols plc
    8.5

    Levi Roots soft drinks

    Company Profile: Levi Roots Reggae Reggae Foods Limited
    8.5

    Panda soft drinks

    Company Profile: Nichols plc
    8.5

    Schloer sparkling drinks

    Company Profile: Merrydown plc
    8.5

    7-UP

    Company Profile: PepsiCo Inc
    8

    Juicy Water

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    7

    Co-op soft drinks

    Company Profile: Co-operative Group Ltd
    5

    Lipton Iced Tea

    Company Profile: Unilever
    5

    M&S soft drinks

    Company Profile: Marks & Spencer Group plc
    5

    Mountain Dew soft drink

    Company Profile: PepsiCo Inc
    5

    Orangina soft drinks

    Company Profile: Schweppes International Limited
    4.5

    Ribena soft drinks

    Company Profile: Lucozade Ribena Suntory Limited
    4.5

    Dr Pepper soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    4

    Evian flavoured water

    Company Profile: Evian
    3.5

    Schweppes soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    3.5

    Volvic flavoured water

    Company Profile: Danone World Water Divison
    3.5

    Waitrose soft drinks

    Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
    3.5

    Sainsbury's soft drinks

    Company Profile: J Sainsbury plc
    2.5

    5-Alive soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Appletiser soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Fanta soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Glaceau soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Honest Tea soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Kia-Ora soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Lilt soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Minute Maid soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Morrisons soft drinks

    Company Profile: Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc
    2

    Oasis soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Rose's cordials

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    San Pellegrino soft drinks

    Company Profile: Nestlé SA
    2

    Sprite soft drinks

    Company Profile: Coca-Cola Company, The
    2

    Tesco soft drinks

    Company Profile: Tesco plc
    1

    Asda soft drinks

    Company Profile: Asda Group Ltd
    0

    What is most important to you?

    Animals
    Environment
    People
    Politics
    Product sustainability

    Our Analysis

    The volume of soft drinks consumed each year is in decline. Yet, amazingly, the value of the industry continues to grow. The UK’s population spent £17.4 billion on soft drinks, juices and bottled water in 2016 alone.[1] 

    Companies have simply responded to health fears – a key factor driving down sales – by upping marketing budgets and developing more reduced-sugar options, particularly in anticipation of the sugar tax.

    In fact, still and juice drinks – often seen as a healthier choice – were one of the only industry options that continued to grow in both volume and value terms. These drinks are often owned by the same big companies, so we can be fairly confident that they’ll survive other downward trends.

    Ownership in this industry is messy. One company often owns a brand, while another produces and distributes it. For example, in the UK, most PepsiCo brands are licensed and distributed by Britvic PLC. Where this kind of arrangement occurs, we combined the scores from all companies involved. (This meant that sometimes a better company improved the score of a brand owned by a worse one. If you are keen to avoid giving any money to the worst offenders, keep this in mind when looking at the table.)

    Supermarket own-brand beverages have a growing share of this industry (24%), so this time we included some of the biggest supermarket soft drinks producers.[1]

    This guide covers fizzy drinks, juice drinks, flavoured waters, mixers, squashes and cordials.

    Score Table Highlights

    The good news is that the number of companies offering ethical alternatives has grown since we last did this guide in 2013. There are now plenty of organic brands such as ChariTea, LemonAid, Lemony and Gingerella. 

    Several companies (Lemonaid, Global Ethics, and Wayfairer) give some of their proceeds to charitable foundations. While this may be a positive move, we did not give them extra Product Sustainability marks, as we weren’t able to assess the actual merit of their donations.

    Sugar in Soft Drinks

    A recent review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine claimed that sugar should be considered as addictive as cocaine. While arguments about whether it is physically addictive continue, there is little doubt that its consumption triggers reward systems in the brain that make it difficult to cut down.

    Soft drinks are the single biggest source of added sugar for children in the UK – around 30% – and the second largest source for adults. Their consumption has long been linked to an obesity epidemic. The number of obese children and adolescents has risen tenfold in the last 40 years.

    Other health problems with sugary drinks are well known: they are linked to tooth cavities and heart disease, and, in 2010, a study found that consuming one to two 12 fl oz (375ml) servings each day increased risk of type 2 diabetes by 26%.

    We need some form of sugar in our diets, but the quantity we now consume has made it public health enemy number one. In the 1980s, Government dietary advice had told us to cut back on fat, but obesity levels, heart disease and diabetes cases continued to rise, largely because we were now being sold low-fat food bulked up with carbohydrates, most notably in its purest form, sugar. Scientists increasingly realised that sugar, when processed in the liver, turns into fat before entering our blood stream.

    Sugar content

    The table below examines the sugar content of best buy and recommended products from the scoretable above, alongside their bestselling, sugar-containing counterparts.

    There are approximately 4 g of sugar to a teaspoon. Type of sugar was ignored in calculations for clarity.

    Image: Sugar content soft drinks tax
    Key:
    The colour code is by tax bracket.
    - The red drinks contain over 8g of sugar per 100ml, and will be taxed at a rate of 24p / litre.
    - The amber drinks contain 5-8g of sugar per 100ml, and will be taxed at a rate of 18p / litre.
    - Those in green contain under 5g and therefore won’t be taxed

    The Sugar Tax

    In March 2017, the government confirmed plans for a Soft Drinks Industry Levy – widely known as the sugar tax – to tackle these issues. From April 2018, all drinks except those with 100% fruit or high dairy content will be taxed: 

    Image: Sugar Tax Graphic

    Critics say it is a patronising tax on the poor, who will be least able to absorb the extra costs if transferred to consumers. However, the government argues that it will garner huge savings for the NHS. Sustain, a pro-levy campaign group, estimates the indirect costs of obesity for the NHS at between £27 billion and £47 billion a year. Researchers have modelled possible effects of the tax to calculate its potential benefits:

    1. If there is a 30% reduction in sugar content for high-sugar drinks, and a 15% reduction in mid-sugar drinks, there will be 144,000 fewer adults and children with obesity, 19,000 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, and 270,000 fewer cases of tooth decay per year.

    2. If half of the levy costs are transferred to consumers, leading to a price increase of up to 20% for high and mid-sugar drinks, there will be: 81,600 fewer adults and children with obesity, 10,800 fewer cases of diabetes, and 149,000 fewer decayed teeth annually.

    Other measures have already been taken. Public Health England’s Change4Life app shows you the sugar content of foods in cube form. Several hospital retailers have agreed to cut sugary drinks sales to 10% – diverting government talks of an outright ban earlier this year.

    In December 2016, the government also extended the ban on advertising junk food (including sugar-added soft drinks) to children to include social media and other online forums. Companies can no longer advertise when children make up more than 25% of the audience. But many have questioned how effective this is when they can still target programmes like X Factor with a large absolute number but a low enough proportion of children watching.

    A 2016 report by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest suggests, indeed, that Coca-Cola have been skirting such laws and their own policy on advertising to under 12s. 

    Keeping us Sweet

    So why has the backlash against added sugar taken so long? John Yudkin, a British professor of nutrition, sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972. His book, ‘Pure, White, and Deadly’, publicised the connection between sugar and heart disease.

    If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned.

    The book did well, but the food industry worked with prominent nutritionists to destroy Yudkin’s career. His writing was dropped from publications and he was excluded from academic events, under the pressure of corporate sponsors.

    Yudkin was discredited for making claims that are today widely accepted. But many suggest that the industry has continued to control the facts. A 2015 review of studies that were sponsored by food and beverage companies found that 156 of the 168 studies looked at showed biased results in the companies’ interests.

    In 2007, a similar review of studies on the health benefits of milk, soda, and juices found that those sponsored entirely by a food or beverage company were between four and eight times more likely to show positive health effects.

    In a more blatant example of industry control, Coca-Cola launched a not-for-profit called Global Energy Balance Network in 2015. The group promoted the idea that Americans are too obsessed with looking at what they eat, whilst paying too little attention to exercise.

    Lobbying Against Sugar Controls

    Katharine Ainge says that the strategies in the food and drinks industry “rivals the tactics we’ve seen from the tobacco lobby for decades.” Ainge is one of the authors of a 2016 report from the Corporate Europe Observatory.

    The report accused the food and drinks industry of seeking to control EU regulatory bodies. “Despite rhetoric about addressing the health crisis, industry lobbyists are derailing effective sugar regulation.”

    Companies were found to be not only opposing new laws, but pushing for the weakening of existing ones. In 2014, Denmark lifted a sugar tax that had been in place for 80 years, following efforts from the soft drinks industry. 

    In the UK, soft drinks lobbyists have been accused of targeting Tory MPs over the sugar tax. Earlier this year, Coca-Cola was said to have threatened legal action if the tax ever came into effect. And The Food and Drink Federation, an industry lobby group, even tried to warn the government off by suggesting that the tax will create a market in smuggling soft drinks!

    Artificial Sweeteners

    The soft drinks industry is far from drying up, with companies and consumers just moving to Low/No/Reduced varieties. In 2015, Tesco removed all added-sugar soft drinks from its shelves, and cut its own brand ones to under the 5-g tax threshold. Since then, many companies and brands, like Robinsons, have followed suit.

    But are the alternatives any better? Low-sugar drinks often rely on artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, cyclamates, saccharin, sucralose, and the new sweetener stevia. These are often hundreds of times sweeter than cane sugar itself but may have their own health risks attached.

    Some, especially aspartame, have been linked to cancer risks in the past but they have been given a clean bill of health by regulatory bodies. Evidence that sweeteners are linked to dementia and strokes has recently been questioned.

    New research does suggests, however, that zero-calorie sweeteners may, in fact, cause weight gain overall. The sweet taste may prompt cravings that just make us eat more. Some scientists also suggest that the sweet flavour may trick the body into releasing too much insulin, leading to weight gain in the long run or sweeteners might alter the gut microbiome, which would affect the body’s use of fat.[2] 

    Campaign group Action on Sugar think that the answer to obesity and the diseases that follow in its wake is to reduce our liking for sweetness. They want to see the gradual reduction of the amount of sugar in our drinks and our food and snacks without the use of sweeteners.

    Soft drinks companies have been criticised for distorting facts about sweeteners. In 2016, the campaign group US Right to Knowcalled Coca-Cola out for claims that ‘diet’ varieties assisted weight loss compared to not drinking soft drinks at all, rather than compared to consuming full-sugar varieties. The group requested that the FDA ban such claims.

    Lots of our companies had a no artificial sweeteners policy for their drinks: Wayfairer (who make Karma, Lemony and Gingerella), LemonAid, Belvoir, Rock’s, Luscombe, Fever-Tree, Franklin and Sons, Free & Easy, PLj.

    Stevia

    Both mainstream and alternative brands have hailed stevia as the perfect, natural alternative. A plant that is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and virtually calorie-free, stevia leaves have been used medicinally by the Guarani people in Paraguay and Brazil for centuries. Knowledge of its properties is valuable. Yet, as big companies profiteer, Guarani populations are losing out.

    Stevia leaves themselves are not used as a commercial sweetener. Instead, steviol glycocides are isolated and purified from the plant. Due to regulations, only the glycocides (not the leaves themselves) can be sold in the US or EU. Commercial companies can therefore control the market, while small-holder farmers in Latin America have no access at all. 

    Companies continue to use Guarani knowledge as a marketing tool, referring to stevia’s ancient, indigenous origins. Yet many are also trying to claim the legal rights for their own. In its 2015 report, ‘The Bitter Sweet Taste of Stevia’, Public Eye found that over 1000 patent applications concerning stevia had been submitted by 2014. Of the eight companies which had submitted the greatest number, three appear in this guide: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Suntory Holdings (which is partially owned by Kotobuki Realty Co. Ltd.).

    Since Public Eye published its report in November 2015, it has been campaigning with Guarani groups to protect their intellectual property rights. 

    The water footprint of soft drinks

    Producing a 0.5 litre bottle of soft drink uses between 170 and 310 litres of water. 95% of this footprint comes from the supply chain, mainly from the ingredients. Sugar is often the biggest culprit, and the origin and kind significantly affect overall impact. For example, a drink using sugar cane from Cuba will use 310 litres of water, whereas one with sugar beet from the Netherlands will use 170.

    These figures include pollution of water sources as a result of agrochemicals, so choosing organic would have a small effect. Drinks using sweeteners instead may seem like a good way to reduce impact, but unfortunately the production of sweeteners often uses cane and beet sugar.

    4% comes from packaging and labelling the product. But the actual water content of the drink accounts for less than 1% of the total amount required.

    Over-extraction of water

    Unsurprisingly then, the process often involves siphoning important resources from water-stressed communities. Earlier this year, more than a million traders in Tamil Nadu began a boycott of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola products over the companies’ use of scarce water sources. The campaigners said that a large part of the issue was sugar cane, “a water-guzzling crop.” Coca-Cola is the number one buyer of sugar cane in the country, and PepsiCo number three, according to the campaign.

    Image: Killer Coke water exploitation

    Although several soft drinks companies claim to replenish the water sources used, the evidence they give has been questioned. Their figures are sometimes based on conservation and water projects miles away from the area of production.

    The Problem of Packaging

    Greenpeace estimates that the plastic in our oceans could circle the planet 400 times. Plastic bottles play a large part in this: one third of those used are dropped, in our streets, beaches and seas.

    The problems with this type of packaging are numerous. Manufacture requires climate-polluting oil for the production of PET bottles. Disposal clogs landfill sites, and is creating huge garbage patches in places like the Pacific Ocean. As the bottles break down, tiny pieces of microplastic are finding their way into underwater ecosystems and even our drinking water supply, endangering the health of fish and potentially human populations.

    These issues are covered in more detail in our Bottled Water guide, but the takeaway message is that the impact of plastic bottles is great and will be extremely long-term, as they take up to 450 years to decompose.

    What is the best option?

    The Bottled Water and Beer guides looked at glass bottles and aluminium cans, both of which are a better choice than plastic. Here is a quick comparison of the findings:

    Plastic bottle vs glass bottle

    Glass bottle vs aluminium can

    • This is a much more even match.
    • Aluminium is lighter so will have lower greenhouse gas emissions from transportation.
    • Recycling an aluminium can only uses 8% of the energy required to produce a new one. By comparison, a 100% recycled glass bottle will use at least 70% of the energy required to make one new.
    • In the US, the average aluminium can contains about 70% recycled content, compared to 30% for glass. No data was available for the UK.
    • But only 45% of aluminium cans are recycled in the UK, compared to 68% of glass bottles, and glass can be endlessly recycled, without releasing polluting chemicals.

    Avoiding the plastic problem

    Several of the companies we looked at are doing this job for us. On the list for our Best Buy and Recommended products: LemonAid, Rocks and Luscombe confirmed that they only use glass bottles. Whole Earth use aluminium cans, and Belvoir, Fever-Tree and Fentiman’s use glass and aluminium.

    Buying cordials, squashes and concentrates are a much less wasteful option in terms of packaging. You can also make your own. There are plenty of recipes on the internet for things like elderflower cordial. Any fruit drink like lemonade can similarly be made from scratch by steeping or boiling fruit, a sweetener and other flavourings in water. For iced tea just flavour or sweeten normal tea and allow to cool. 

    You can even carbonate your own! Unfortunately, SodaStream remains on the Boycotts Divestment and Sanctions list. BDS states that the company is complicit in the displacement of Bedouin Palestinians, by the Israeli government.

    Alternatives include Drinkmate, Isoda, or Limo Bar for counter-top machines; Bubblecap for a cheaper screw-on version, or soda siphons available through catering or bar suppliers. See the Bottled Water guide for more information on this.

    Bottle for life

    Buy a reusable, stainless steel ‘bottle for life’ to transport your home-made soft drink. See the Bottled Water guide for details of brands like Jerry bottle, Klean Kanteen, Frank Water, Refill.org, Give Me Tap, Tapwater.org and Retap. 

    Company behind the brand

    LemonAid GmbH has raised over $2 million for the LemonAid and ChariTea Foundation through its drinks sales. Founded in Germany in 2008, the social enterprise donates 5 pence/cents from every bottle. The money goes to “local NGOs and social initiatives that have a proven track record but are not yet funded by a global charity partner.”

    All drinks are organic and Fairtrade, and all bottles are glass, so they can be fully recycled. In countries with bottle deposit schemes, LemonAid will take them back and refill them. It uses pea protein to filter its drinks, to avoid gelatine or fish bladders!

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    References:

    1. Mintel, Carbonated Soft Drinks market report, June 2017, viewed 9 November 2017
    2. Sugar: the Gateway to Weight Gain, Consumer Reports, November 2017