Soft Drinks

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 49 soft drink brands.

We also look at vegan soft drinks and sugar alternatives, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Calyx 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.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying soft drinks:

  • Is it homemade? Making soft drinks at home can be quick, easy, cheap, and by far the best option for the environment. Use locally sourced, organic ingredients if possible. 

  • Is it organic? Synthetic pesticides and herbicides threaten insect populations, contaminate water sources and can have ecosystem-wide knock-on effects. Look for organic certification to support farming methods that are more in tune with nature.

  • Does it have a strong supply chain policy? Sugar, vanilla 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 Fairtrade to help ensure workers receive fair wages and working conditions.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying soft drinks:

  • Does it exploit workers? Several transnational companies in this guide have appalling records on workers’ rights. Buy from a company with a robust supply chain policy.

  • Is it ignoring climate change? How seriously is the company trying to reduce its carbon emissions? Transitioning to environmentally friendly packaging is no longer enough – soft drinks companies must take responsibility for carbon emissions.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

Our Analysis

In this guide we review carbonated soft drinks, cola and energy drinks. Carbonated beverages are by far the UK’s most popular type of soft drink, representing 37.8% of all soft drink sales.

The soft drinks industry has shown consistent growth in the UK since 2013 and, in the last three years, consumers have been drinking higher volumes per capita. It’s estimated that the average person drinks 79.9 litres of carbonated soft drink each year.

This guide introduces our favourite organic and Fairtrade drinks companies, shares tips on finding vegan-friendly beverages, and discusses the issues around sugar and alternatives.

Making your own drinks is by far our top recommendation, but affordable, ethical alternatives to the multinational brand players are also increasingly available as you'll see in our price comparison below. Why wouldn’t you opt for a drink that’s splitting at the seams with ethical certifications?

Score table highlights

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 to, made and distributed by Britvic PLC. Where this occurs, we combined the scores from all companies involved.

We do not award extra marks for companies that donate to charities or run charitable foundations. This is because the line between social responsibility and greenwashing and whitewashing is often impossible to draw.

For example, Belvoir donated amounts under £5,000 to several environmental charities. Yet, it scored a worst rating for Environmental Reporting and Carbon Management and Reporting.

Ethical soft drinks

Organic and fairtrade soft drinks

Gusto, Karma Cola, Lemonaid Beverages, Scheckter’s (ORG Beverages SARL), Luscombe, Pip Organic (Booost Trading) and Biona (Windmill Organics Ltd.) all received positive Company Ethos marks for being organic companies in this guide. Calyx Drinks Ltd. stated that it used 60-80% organic ingredients.

Some companies retailed both organic and non-organic products. These were SHS Group (Rocks organic), The Coca-Cola Company (Honest Tea), Belvoir, and Healthy Sales Group (Switchle)

Gusto, Lemonaid Beverages, Karma Cola and Calypso Fairtrade (Refresco) also sourced Fairtrade ingredients.

Fairtrade cola

Cola constitutes 55.8% of all soft drinks consumed in Britain. From the cola nut itself to the sugar and sweeteners used, many agricultural ingredients in cola come with serious poverty and workers’ rights issues.

Combined, the two biggest producers globally – The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo – own so many brands we needed an overflow box (see below).

Our Best Buy cola alternatives are Gusto and Karma. Both are Fairtrade and organic.

Fairtrade certification is not that strong on wages but does help to regulate working conditions. And the major advantage of Fairtrade is related to pricing, which helps small family farms make a decent income.

Vegan soft drinks

Marks: While several companies in this guide did not appear to use animal-derived ingredients, we only awarded marks to companies that explicitly stated that they were vegan.

Many soft drinks are naturally vegan, but when a company states that it is vegan it enables consumers to hold the company to higher standards, including by highlighting other potential animal rights issues in the company’s activities.

100% vegan companies

Calyx Drinks Ltd, Cawston Press, Lemonaid Beverages, Fevertree and Gusto Organic explicitly state that all company products are vegan. Lemonaid Beverages however retailed products containing organic honey, which some vegans might not consider acceptable.

Products: what to look out for

The Vegan Society website says

“A small number of orange-coloured drinks contain gelatine (derived from collagen obtained from various animal by-products) and one or two red-coloured ones contain cochineal (food colouring derived from a species of insect). These will be stated on the packaging.

“You won’t need to look too closely to tell if there’s milk, cream, or honey in a drink; as this is usually easy to spot from the name (don’t panic – you don’t need Baileys if you make your own vegan Irish Cream).

“One thing to look out for is concentrated juice. Juice missing its pulp may been distilled through non-vegetarian ingredients, so look for a vegetarian/vegan label or, even better, the Vegan Trademark. If none is available, it is advised that you contact the manufacturer.”

Big brands that aren’t vegan

Diet Pepsi and Diet Pepsi Caffeine Free aren’t suitable for vegans. The company mysteriously refuses to say why these products aren’t vegan.

The following Coca-Cola drinks contain animal derivatives:

Lilt, Lilt Zero, Kia-Ora Orange Squash No Added Sugar, Schweppes Indian Tonic Water, Schweppes Orange Squash and Honest (Lemon and Honey).

The company website states that these contain fish gelatine, honey, vitamin D sourced from lanolin in sheep’s wool, or milk.

Vegan packaging

Some retailers are turning away from petroleum-based plastics in favour of bioplastics (which are made at least partially from renewable alternatives).

However, some bioplastics are made from agricultural and industrial by-products such as feathers and fish scales.

Drink up for your health?

When we last reviewed soft drinks in 2017, the government was about to implement the Soft Drinks Levy (known as the Sugar Tax). Recent years have witnessed product innovation as drinks manufacturers seek to reduce costs, and some consumers seek healthier alternatives.

Taking a stand against fatphobia

Sugar does have health impacts– it’s linked to tooth cavities, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and, of course, obesity.

However, we think it’s important when talking about food and health to highlight another ethical issue – fatphobia and body shaming. Virgie Tovar is an American author and activist on weight-based discrimination and body image.

Tovar argues:

“Any food justice conversation that demonizes food or perpetuates weight stigma has failed. Food justice conversations inadvertently fall into the same trap again and again: stoking fear around foods that are a regular part of many people’s diets and using the presence of higher weight people as evidence that food systems have failed. These tactics promote food anxiety and fatphobia, both are connected to disordered eating. It’s important to centralize human rights in this conversation, rather than health outcomes.”

Coca-Cola downplayed link between diet and obesity

At the same time, being able to access research about foods’ effect on health should be a consumer’s right. Research has emerged showing that Coca-Cola funded research which downplayed the link between diet and obesity and promoted the idea that obesity was instead caused by a lack of exercise.

According to a 2020 article in the journal Public Health and Nutrition, Coca-Cola sought to obscure its relationship with researchers, minimise the public perception of its role and use these researchers to promote industry-friendly messaging.

Impact of the sugar tax

Under the Soft Drinks Levy (aka Sugar Tax), drinks with more than 8 g per 100 ml face a tax rate equivalent to 24p per litre. For those containing 5-8 g it is 18p per litre.

Campaign group Action on Sugar stated that by April 2018 more than half of manufacturers had reduced the sugar content of their drinks since the introduction of the levy in order to avoid paying out. They did it largely by reformulating with artificial sweeteners or Stevia.

Between May 2015 and May 2019, sugar intake from soft drinks in Britain fell by a whopping 30.4%. However, Pepsi and Coca-Cola were two notable brands that have not reformulated.

image: sugar content of ethical soft drinks market leaders

Price comparison

The Best Buys in this guide are more expensive, but not overwhelmingly so – if you usually buy Coca-Cola and switch to Karma Cola, it’ll only cost an extra 4p per 100ml.

Our Recommended Buys are some of the cheapest drinks on the market. Barr Cola for example costs just 5p/100ml (though it is only available in 2 litre bottles).

table: soft drinks price comparison

Sugar alternatives

Low-sugar drinks often rely on artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, cyclamates, saccharin, sucralose, and stevia. These can often be hundreds of times sweeter than cane sugar.


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.

A 2019 article on the Servindi website stated that companies such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola had used the ancestral knowledge of the Guaraní community without payment or compensation. It stated,

"Many international businesses are benefiting from the sweetening properties of stevia without acknowledging that this knowledge was produced by the Guarani people of Paraguay and Brazil."

Laurent Gaberell, head of biodiversity and intellectual property at Public Eye, stated

"The Guarani, who are the ones who discovered the sweetening characteristics of stevia, are not receiving their share of the benefits from the economic exploitation of their knowledge, as required by the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Nagoya Protocol".

image: woman surrounded by stevia plants


For some people, high intakes of caffeine can cause insomnia, nervousness, headaches and heart palpitations. It can also be addictive.

However, there are a number of studies that suggest that moderate intake can promote a variety of health benefits, including a lower risk of certain cancers, brain conditions, and liver problems.

All drinks in this guide contained less synthetic caffeine than a cup of coffee (per 100ml). That said, energy drinks are often sold in greater volumes than coffee, such as 330ml Red Bull bottles.

Drink Synthetic caffeine content per 100ml
Coca cola 10mg
Lucozade 12mg
Red Bull 20mg
Monster 32mg
Cup of coffee 40mg

Traditional glucose-based energy drinks claim to provide a particular energy boost from caffeine, guarana, taurine and ginseng or other herbs.

James White has advertised its Zingers as “a delicious caffeine-free alternative to an espresso to wake you up”.

Gusto Organic uses cola nut as a natural stimulant in place of synthetic caffeine.

The Coca-Cola Company’s acquisition of Costa Coffee in a USD$5 billion deal completed in 2019 is helping the company profit more from caffeine cravings.

Brands not on the table

We didn’t have room on the table for the following brands:

  • Karma Cola – Lemony Lemonade
  • Coca-Cola – 5-Alive, Appletiser, Fanta, Glaceau, Kia-Ora, Lilt, Minute Maid, Oasis, Powerade energy, Rose’s cordial, Sprite, Juicy Water
  • Britvic – Drench, Fruit Shoot, J20, London Essence, R Whites, Robinsons, Tango
  • AG Barr – D’n’B, Funkin, Irn-Bru, KA, OMJ!, Simply, Sun Exotic, Tizer
  • Refresco – Calypso, Old Jamaica, Sunny DlNichols – Panda, SunkistlSHS Group – Schloer
  • James White – Thorncroft cordials
  • Belvoir – Belvoir non organic presses & cordials

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 and the best options for drinks packaging are covered in more detail in our feature.

Make your own soft drinks

Making your own soft drinks means you know with certainty what ingredients you’re consuming. It’s also the best option environmentally.

If you’re feeling luxurious, buy and squeeze fresh fruit yourself, preferably sourced from local organic traders. You’ll appreciate it more after all the squeezing! You can also blend fruits and strain them through a muslin cloth.

Get a mint plant. It can grow from spring to autumn, and while it’s best fresh, it can be frozen for winter months.

For a cheap and easy option, add slices of fruit to water. Lemons, limes, cucumbers, and oranges cost less than £1 and can make litres of tasty, flavoured water. You can also just add a few drops of organic lemon or lime juice to water.

Feeling extra ambitious? Try homemade kombucha or kefir.

Company behind the brand

Calyx is a new entry to this guide that was recommended to us by a consumer. If you’re looking to support small black-owned businesses in the UK, this is a great choice.

Calyx is a vegan company that does not use GMO or palm oil, and currently uses 60-80% organic ingredients. It achieved Ethical Consumer’s best ratings for Environmental Reporting and Carbon Management and Reporting.

Want more information?

See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.  

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