The bold fonts and bright colors of the can were much more stylish than anything I’d ever seen at my grocery store before. Upon my first sip of Poppi, a line of prebiotic sodas that debuted two years ago, I was greeted with a slightly sour aftertaste that reminded me of a milder version of kombucha. A look at the ingredients list told me that it contained apple cider vinegar (ACV) along with a variety of juice blends and filtered water, which the company touts as its special ingredient to better gut health. Why, of all drinks, are these prebiotic sodas the flashiest product in the beverage aisle?
What are prebiotics?
Our bodies are filled with a collection of both good and bad bacteria. Trillions of microbes live inside of us, mainly in our gut. Everything is fine until the bad bacteria take over, causing a variety of ailments, including inflammation and gastrointestinal issues. By introducing more of the good bacteria, aka probiotics, into your diet, it’s believed that you can essentially push the bad bacteria away and let the good bacteria do its job. Prebiotic foods, then, are those that contain the dietary fiber that feeds the good probiotic bacteria.
The growth of prebiotic beverages
Since the birth of Synergy kombucha (now GT’s Living Foods) back in 1995, the world of fermented carbonated beverages has seen a healthy, steady incline, accounting for 30% growth every year and projected to grow into a $6.5 billion market by 2025. Market research firm Nielsen stated in its 2019 report that retail sales of non-alcoholic beverages was $1.1 billion in 2018 alone, indicating that consumers want new and interesting beverages of all kinds, not just alcoholic ones. Not only that, but they also want beverages that are good for them.
With this change in tastes comes a challenge and an opportunity. In the past five years alone, as more Americans demonstrate curiosity about probiotics (and prebiotics), companies such as OLIPOP, Poppi, Revive, and Culture Pop have appeared on the scene, all offering what consumers seem to want: the chance to drink a soda with none of the negative connotations of soda that have been drilled into us across the decades. What could telegraph these positive vibes better than a bright, colorful, 100% Instagrammable can of probiotic soda claiming to aid us in our wellness?
These brands understand that to appeal to consumers (especially millennial women), they must tap into the wellness industry at large, in which self-care is propagated as the essential antidote to physical and mental health issues alike. Indeed, the idea of “chilling out” has never been so popular.
“We’re living in a time of high anxiety and as an antidote to that, people are looking for all sorts of ways to calm themselves,” Michael McGregor, director of brand marketing for Cha Cha Matcha, told Eater in 2019. However, as writer Alicia Kennedy put it, “Chill isn’t cheap, which is what makes it good business, but it’s also elusive and ill-defined.”
The cost of feeling chill can be found right there on the label. A single 12-oz. can of probiotic soda currently costs anywhere from $2 to $4 at my local grocery store, a far cry from the unit cost of Coca-Cola and other major soft drink brands. There has long been a high cost associated with healthy living, and the prebiotic beverage sector doesn’t seem too eager to provide any economical alternatives. (Perhaps drinking regular old apple cider vinegar is the economical alternative.)
“At this cultural moment, drinking for drinking’s sake is considered a waste of time—people want their beverages to do something,” wrote Melinda Fakuade in Vox on the rise of designer beverages. “As a result, we’ve created an entire category of ‘functional’ beverages that claim to have the ability to make us better in every single way, from our brains to our beauty.”
Do prebiotic drinks work?
While nutrition experts agree that our gut does play a role in our overall physical and mental health, there’s no solid research backing up the industry’s bold claims that consuming more probiotics will cure your ailments or change your health in any particular, concrete way, especially when it comes to drinking apple cider vinegar.
Ultimately, like any product, the “effectiveness” of the drink might not be what’s driving sales—it could just as easily be the beautiful designs that appeal to our senses, and the brand narrative that appeals to our emotions. It’s the promise of a carefree, fun, and easygoing life devoid of complex health conditions, the idea that we can take back control of our lives simply by making basic lifestyle changes such as purchasing a more “responsible” type of soda.
Probiotic soda might continue to flourish if it can continue to convince consumers that it provides a sense of wellness and relaxation (two things that are difficult to quantify). After all, it’s both easier and cheaper to believe that a fizzy beverage can fix whatever ails us. But the point remains: you should probably only continue to buy it if you think it tastes good.