Secrets Behind America’s Favorite Soft Drinks

More American Than Apple Pie?

Americans consume over 44.7 gallons of carbonated soft drinks a year. That’s twice the amount of milk consumed and four times the amount of tea. It’s safe to say that soft drinks are a firm (but far from healthy) part of our beverage culture.

Since the mid-1800s, when carbonated lemonade was sold as a novelty at fairs and British soldiers began adding sugar to their bitter-tasting quinine tonic water, manufacturers have churned out soda gimmicks by the trainload. Some worked, most didn’t. Here’s a few historical tidbits about the soft drinks that lasted.

(And yes, Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine, but that’s been shared to tatters)

Pop? Soda? Coke? Soda Pop?

Depending on where you live in the United States, the colloquial name for carbonated soft drinks may differ. It’s actually a popular topic for linguists, because it’s an English language idiosyncrasy that transcends political and educational boundaries.

Belly up to a counter in Chicago and ask for a “soda”, and you’ll raise a few eyebrows. Ask for a “Coke” in Georgia and they’ll politely ask which kind, since they often use “Coke” for any carbonated soft drink.

Don’t ask for a “pop” in Florida.

Coca-Cola: A Century of #1

Coke is everywhere, and its history and firm place as the most popular drink in the world has never been seriously threatened. Among the many achievements of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, becoming the first soft drink in space has to rank as one of the highest.

In 1985, the crew of the space shuttle Challenger enjoyed a can of Coca-Cola hundreds of miles above Earth, and in zero gravity, using a pressurized can designed by NASA scientists and Coca-Cola itself.

Pepsi-Cola: Silver Medal Soft Drink


Pepsi entered the soft drink market just after Coca-Cola, but it’s original name was not quite as catchy—”Brad’s Drink.” Really.

In 1893, Caleb Bradham created and sold the soft drink over his drugstore counter, but after a few years decided it needed a catchier name that reflected the drink’s major selling points: first, that it promoted better digestion (it did a little); second, that it tasted good. He renamed it Pepsi-Cola, after the term for an upset stomach (dyspepsia) and the kola nuts used to flavor the drink. The name stuck.

Diet Coke: It Doesn’t Cause Cancer, Dammit!

Coca-Cola hesitated on entering the diet soft drinks market originally, because they feared an inferior-tasting beverage might hurt their product’s reputation. Instead, they released Tab in 1963. In 1982, Coca-Cola decided to gamble on the diet market, and introduced Diet Coke, which quickly eclipsed Tab’s place as the world’s most popular no-calorie soda.

Although Tab is still produced by Coca-Cola, it’s become a niche beverage, selling only a couple million cases a year, as opposed to the few billion cases of Diet Coke sold in the same period.

Mountain Dew: From Hillbilly to Hip


When Pepsi purchased Mountain Dew in 1964, it wanted to shake off the cartoonish, “hillbilly” image its original owners had trotted out for the electric-green soft drink (“Mountain Dew” was a slang term for moonshine in the early 1900s). Instead, they marketed it as an ideal drink for younger, virile soda fans.

The marketing worked. Now the fourth most popular soft drink in the United States, Mountain Dew continues touting its image to younger generations. It has even retained a place as a morning beverage because of its caffeine content (equal to approx. 1/2 a cup of coffee per 12 oz. can).

PepsiCo frequently markets the drink alongside events and products that appeal to teenagers; PepsiCo introduced Mountain Dew Game Fuel in 2019 (which contains about the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee).


Dr Pepper: Are You Pepper Enough? 

Dr Pepper’s history is rich with rumors and theories concerning the origin of its name and the exact list and amounts of its ingredients, but the company will only confirm one item: it does not contain prune juice (seeking to debunk rumors to the contrary). Coca-Cola made many attempts to either drown out or purchase the mysterious “pepper” beverage, but a flood of copyright and antitrust lawsuits have prevented it.

First, Dr Pepper sued Coca-Cola because it could not compete with the iconic “five-cent” price, which Dr Pepper believed Coca-Cola did to destroy competing brands.

It again sued Coca-Cola in 1972, when Coke released “Peppo”, a similar-tasting beverage. Coca-Cola was forced to rename the new soft drink, calling it first “Pibb” then “Mr. Pibb.” Finally, Dr Pepper agreed to merge with Coca-Cola in 1995, but antitrust laws in the United States prevented it.

Sprite: Mercenary Beverage

Created in West Germany in the 1950s, Coca-Cola specifically bought and introduced the beverage to the United States to compete with 7 Up for the lemon-lime beverage market…and as an alcoholic drink mixer.

Although the formula for this popular soft drink has remained generally the same in the United States since its 1960 introduction, manufacturers overseas removed 30% of its sugar in 2012, replacing it with the natural sweetener stevia. This reformulation caught on, and it is now the standard recipe for Sprite sold in France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

7 Up: Mood-Altering Beverage

As other soft drinks, plenty of rumors swirl around as to the origin of its name, from its ph level of 7 (it’s actually 3.79) to it being sold in seven-ounce bottles.

Another popular rumor about this lemon-lime soft drink is that it once contained lithium, one of the most successful mood-stabilizing drugs in human history (and the drug that largely rendered lobotomies obsolete). This rumor is…true.

Created and sold in the late 1920s, 7 Up’s original name was “Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda” and was marketed as medicine. It did contain lithium citrate. Although the safety and effectiveness of lithium was not understood at the time, pharmacists frequently used it for that purpose. It remained in the drink until 1948, when the FDA banned the use of lithium in retail food or beverages.

Fanta: Yes, from Nazi-Land


First off, let’s just say this was an “ethically-questionable era” in the history of Coca-Cola. 

In 1940, in the early of World War II’s horrors, the Coca-Cola Bottling Company fell smack in the middle of the trade embargo of American products to Nazi Germany. It could no longer ship its syrup to German bottlers, which was costing Coca-Cola millions.

Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola bottling companies in Germany, cut off from their American headquarters, decided to create their own formulations. Fanta was not created by the Nazis, but by isolated bottlers to fill the soft drink vacuum in the German market.

Since the country suffered severe rationing and shortages, they used ingredients at hand, including beets, apple skins and whey. Yikes. But the beverages sold, largely because of the sugar content, since the population suffered from constant sugar shortages. Once the war ended, the formulations were mostly abandoned, but Coca-Cola kept the new name: Fanta (shortened from the German word die Fantasie or “imagination”).

Two “Unusual” Soft Drinks…


Sap! VT maple water entrepreneurs appear on ABC's 'Shark Tank'

Featured on Shark Tank, this unusual soft drink uses maple and birch tree sap and then adds carbonation. The somewhat odd combination has proven popular and was named a “Top Food Trend for 2018”.

Crystal Pepsi

Crystal Pepsi Is Coming Back for the Last Time | MyRecipes
When Crystal Pepsi came to market in the early 1990s, it sold almost $500 million in its first year, an impressive rookie season for the heavily-advertised beverage.

But Coca-Cola would have none of that. They rushed Tab Clear to market at the same time, and advertised it as a competing but similar brand, in a legendary “kamikaze” marketing action. Coca-Cola focused on the health benefits of Tab Clear, making Crystal Pepsi looking more and more unhealthy. In the end, both drinks went belly up because neither looked or sold very well.

Crystal Pepsi’s following was not satisfied and, appealing to the nostalgia generation, PepsiCo has occasionally sold limited runs of the beverage on Amazon and in stories, with the last run put on the market in 2018.