(Real) Soda is Good for You

It's not widely disputed that soft drinks are bad for you. Our obsession with soda consumption in the recent century has been attributed to cavities, diabetes, obesity, and of course, pollution. It's just an all-around bad food. (I actually wouldn't even call it "food", myself) Soda is loaded with genetically modified corn syrup and a barrage of harmful ingredients. (and not to mention the 10 teaspoons of sugar per serving) And the "diet" versions are probably even worse. Soda is addictive, and just like alcohol and tobacco, cutting it leads to overall better health.
But there are better alternatives out there. And not only are they better, but they're actually beneficial
I'm talking 'bout fermented drinks. And no, I'm not talking about wine. 
Fizzy and bubbly and good for the gut, traditionally carbonated drinks have been around for awhile. Before they were loaded with artificial flavors and refined sugar, drinks like root beer and ginger ale were used for medicinal purposes. (think old school pharmacies sitting right next to a soda fountain) These drinks were meant to be beneficial to the body, but modern soft drink companies have capitalized on the inherent human craving for fizzy beverages. 
From this article on traditional "sodas":
We offer the theory that the craving for both alcohol and soft drinks stems from an ancient collective memory of the kind of lacto-fermented beverages still found in traditional societies.
So there's a good reason why guzzling down a can of coke is so satisfying! There's some instinctive craving for bubbly beverages that our bodies enjoy. But instead tricking our bodies by feeding them artificial fermented drinks, why not give them the real thing? These lacto-fermented drinks colonize your gut with beneficial bacteria, aiding in digestion and a handful of other things, while still giving you that fizz you're craving.

Kombucha (the Regina George of fermented drinks)
Maybe you've heard of the most popular of fermented drinks, kombucha. Or as some (hippies) like to call it: 'booch. 
Kombucha is made from tea, sugar, and a strain of bacteria called a SCOBY. (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast) When fermented, the bacteria feeds off the sugar in the tea, and leaves behind a sour-flavored probiotic tea that can then be flavored or drank plain. Depending on how long it's brewed for (anywhere from 7-30 days), the finished product can be fairly sweet, or have a slight vinegar flavor. (I personally prefer it more sour, but my mom gives me the stink eye if I offer her any that hasn't been sweetened with fruit)
Kombucha is definitely the most mainstream of fermented drinks. Its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years. But it's not just the health nuts who are on board; you can buy it bottled at most standard grocery stores now. Since this is fairly strong stuff, some people have to work their way up to drinking more than just a sip. But I love it. Whenever my stomach's feeling a little sickly, I drink a bit of kombucha and it settles my stomach. And since this stuff is rich in antioxidants, minerals, and good bacteria, it's well worth it.
(also, the history of kombucha is pretty interesting to read about if you're inclined to that sort-of thing)

Water Kefir (the lesser known but really cool indie band of fermented drinks)
Water kefir: it's not quite as well known as kombucha, but much tastier in my opinion. Water kefir is a different strain of bacteria than kombucha that is ridiculously easy to make. It has a much shorter fermenting process than kombucha (24-48 hours) and it has a very mild, sweet taste to it.
I'm actually curious as to why I haven't seen this stuff increasing in popularity, since I haven't met anyone who's disliked its subtle flavor. (when I give people kombucha to try, I'm usually met with a sour face, but water kefir is a different story) I imagine it'll be the next popular fermented drink to take on the market. 
But because of it's light flavor, it make a great canvas for flavoring. I love to simply squeeze a lemon into some fresh kefir, and ta-da! Probiotic lemonade. But there's no limit to how you can flavor it; with fresh fruit, fruit juices, homemade syrups, herbs, etc!
Water kefir also provides a fantastic vehicle for replacing traditional soda flavors. There's no need to give up root beercream soda, ginger ale, or orange soda! These can all be made with water kefir. And just like kombucha, the enzymes and beneficial bacteria you're receiving through it is somehow makes it taste even better.

Brewing at home 
These drinks are fantastic alternatives to soda, but if we're being honest, they can be pretty pricey. $4 for a 16 oz bottle of kombucha isn't exactly cheap. So, obviously, the most economic way to enjoy the benefits of these beverages is to make them at home. 
Okay, I know, that sounds scary. The idea of sustaining bacteria cultures that you're going to drink in your kitchen can be intimidating, but it's much easier than it sounds. Fermenting can be scary, but with proper sanitation and mostly common sense, you can do it. (you're probably more likely to get sick from store-bought spinach anyways, okay?)
Humans have been in the fermenting business for a long while. Making and storing our own food was a necessity, and fermenting was one of the ways we did that before refrigeration came along. So put this into perspective. I mean, every time you cook chicken for dinner, you're risking salmonella. 

I've only been brewing kombucha and kefir at home for about 5 months, so I'm still experimenting with flavors and techniques. (I accidentally left some second-ferment water kefir out for too long and when I carelessly popped the lid to the swing-top bottle, it came bubbling out like a bottle of champagne, except I wasn't celebrating anything and I had to clean up orange-flavored kefir off the floor)
But my overall experience has been awesome. There's something oddly therapeutic and satisfying about having to care for these cultures of bacteria. They're living, growing organisms that must be fed and nurtured and cared for, just like anything else. Even just last week, I grew a really pristine SCOBY, and for a second I felt like a proud mama and let me tell you, it was weird. But a good kind of weird. They're like odd little pets. But instead of having accidents on the floor, they give me yummy, probiotic drinks in return for feeding them regularly.  
Okay, but really. There is something sorta magical about aiding and experiencing the process of fermentation firsthand. 

So how do I start?
To start making these drinks, you need first need the cultures. If you're lucky, you might know of someone who's currently brewing kombucha. If so, they've likely got plenty of SCOBY's to go around (every batch of kombucha grows a new SCOBY). Or maybe they have water kefir grains to share. (a dear family friend of mine set me up with my starter SCOBY and kefir grains)
But if you don't have any hippie friends on hand, you might find dehydrated SCOBY's or water kefir grains at your local health food store. 
Or, the simplest solution, you can you can purchase SCOBY's and kefir grains from these two trusted sites: 
Beyond that, you really just need water, tea, sugar, and a glass jar!. 
Once you have the ingredients, making it is pretty simple. Though it's a very easy process, I still don't feel experienced enough to give a full tutorial on how to make them, so here's some easy-to-follow tutorials! How to make water kefir and How to make kombucha

So now now next time you see a bottle of GT kombucha at Whole Food's, you might be inclined give it a try. Let me know if ya do!

*kombucha bottle clinking sound*

(photo by Brooke Lark)

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