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Sorry, Soda: The U.S. Is Just Not That Into You

Americans will buy more bottled water than soda for the first time ever in 2016

It may not have been love at first sight, but America is finally developing a crush on bottled water. (Myrtle Beach TheDigitel (Flickr/Creative Commons))
smithsonian.com

Soda used to be a food industry juggernaut—an industry so popular, it became inextricably linked with the world’s image of the United States. In 2012 alone, North America bought a whopping 87,918 million liters of soft drinks. Suffice it to say, that’s a lot of pop. But are Americans falling out of love with their favorite drink? Could be: As Bloomberg’s Jennifer Kaplan reports, bottled water is set to outsell soda for the first time in 2016.

The consumption of bottled water is expected to reach 27.4 gallons per capita this year, per statistics from the market research firm Euromonitor. That’s 1.2 gallons more than the 26.2 gallons of soda that will be sold for each American. And Kaplan writes that the surge in bottled water has a surprising—and sad—reason: Given lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, which has tainted that city’s water supply, sealed and bottled water is becoming more popular.

That’s not the only factor leading to a decline in soda, though. The sale of soft drinks has been on the decline for over a decade, and Americans’ years-long love affair with sparkly, sugary beverages seems to be on the skids.

It was a good run, stoked in part by sexy spending by the industry’s giants. Take Coca-Cola: In the 1940s, the company invested the equivalent of more than $83 million to put the soda in the hands of American GIs during World War II, creating a generation of loyal customers. A longstanding feud between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola drove sales even higher, and soon soda (or pop, or tonic, depending on where you live) was America’s national drink.

But all that fizz eventually went flat. Between rising obesity rates in children, concerns about the health implications of diet soda and controversial taxes on sugary drinks, it seems that the United States and soda may be getting a quiet divorce. As Margot Sanger-Katz tracked for The New York Times in 2015, sugary drink consumption has plummeted and soda sales have fallen by over 25 percent over the last two decades.

Bottled water has its downsides, too. It’s often bottled by soda companies, many of whom are shifting sales to water in what The Week’s John Jewell calls “the marketing trick of the century.” It’s also environmentally unfriendly, fueling oil consumption for petroleum-based bottles, stoking pollution as bottles travel long distances from their supply point and creating large amounts of solid waste. But for consumers spooked by concerns about their health and worries about the affect of aging pipes on public water, the tradeoff—a sealed bottle of calorie-free refreshment—seems worth it.

Will the affair last or is it just a rebound? That remains to be seen—but for now, purveyors of bottled water are doubtless hoping that even though it wasn't love at first sight, Americans are able to commit to their newest flame.

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