We Americans love our soft drinks. Last year, national soft drink sales topped 9 billion cases despite more Americans turning to alternatives like iced tea and sports drinks. That's a lot of soda--and a lot of 20-ounce bottles (about 285 per person). It's expensive, too. A January article in Time magazine estimated that the average American household spent $850 on soft drinks each year.
Denouncing the U.S. soft-drink industry as "flawed" and "stupid" (to use some of his milder epithets), Birnbaum wants to persuade Americans to cast aside their plastic bottles and make their own soda at home. His company now offers nine different models of the SodaStream home soda maker, from the $80 Fountain Jet to the $200 Revolution, which includes such high-tech features as preset buttons for different carbonation levels and an LED display. The company promises that making your own soda and seltzer water will save you money, time and space, while reducing packaging waste.
Do these claims really hold water (the carbonated kind, presumably)? We consulted reviews from users, along with other sources, to see just how well the SodaStream performs in the following areas:
Convenience. The SodaStream is pretty simple to use. You fill the included reusable bottle with water, insert it into the machine and push the carbonator button. The machine adds CO2 from the carbonator capsule housed in the back of the machine. In a matter of moments, you've produced a liter of seltzer. You can then choose to combine it with one of the various SodaStream "SodaMix" flavors. A single carbonation capsule can carbonate 60 liters of water; one bottle of flavor syrup can flavor nearly 12 liters of soda. This means fewer trips to the store to buy soda, and fewer bottles (or cans) to haul from your car and store in your fridge. The downside, however, is that when your machine does run out of fizz, you can't just run to any grocery store to restock. The carbonator must be exchanged at a store where the SodaStream is sold (such as Staples, Wal-Mart or Bed, Bath & Beyond). But not all SodaStream retailers can exchange carbonators, so check the SodaStream website to find a carbonator exchange location. (If there is no participating vendor near you, empty cartridges can be shipped to SodaStream for new ones--but this takes time and costs extra for shipping.) Because of this extra hassle, the top review on Amazon.com--which is highly enthusiastic about the SodaStream overall--declares this product "a wash" in terms of convenience, compared with buying soda.
Cost. An empty 60-liter carbonator can be exchanged for a full one for about $15. For most basic flavors, syrups cost $5 each. Thus, a SodaStream unit reduces your soft drink costs to just 25 cents for each liter of seltzer or 12-ounce can of soda. However, as an unenthusiastic reviewer on Amazon.com points out, these costs don't tell the whole story. There's also the cost of the water and the amortized cost of the machine itself, which he calculates as adding another 21 cents or so per liter. This brings the total cost to nearly twice what you'd pay for a two-liter bottle of store-brand soda. So buying the SodaStream solely to save money may not be worthwhile (a point the first reviewer makes as well).
Reduced waste. Here's an area in which the SodaStream really does stand out. Most SodaStream machines include a reusable, one-liter, BPA-free plastic bottle. (If there are multiple soda or seltzer drinkers in your household, you can buy additional bottles at $20 a pair.) According to a July Gallup poll, a typical soda drinker consumes about 2.6 servings a day, or 224 liters a year. This means that over the course of just one year, this single bottle could replace 112 two-liter bottles, 380 20-ounce bottles, or 633 12-ounce cans. Moreover, the environmental blog, TreeHugger explains that homemade soda also eliminates the CO2 emissions associated with shipping those 224 liters of soda each year, which could work out to around 4.7 kilograms. (These numbers do not factor in the environmental costs of producing, shipping and eventually disposing of the SodaStream machine itself--but then, the numbers for store-bought soda don't factor in the environmental costs of the bottling company's equipment either.)
Flavor options. SodaStream offers more than 60 different flavor syrups. You'll find both regular and diet versions of all standard soda flavors, including cola, caffeine-free cola, root beer, ginger ale and lemon-lime. You can also get flavor mixes for energy drinks, iced teas and flavored waters. Moreover, SodaStream advertises that all its regular soda mixes are sweetened with a mixture of sugar and the artificial sweetener Splenda, making them less caloric and thus more healthful. (Those who dislike the taste of Splenda can opt for the pricier "sparkling natural" soda mixes, which are sweetened with pure cane sugar.) For those of you hooked on a specific brand of soda, you're out of luck; so far, no major soft-drink manufacturers are offering their proprietary mixes for use with the SodaStream. (On the other hand, you can buy syrups to make carbonated versions of Country Time lemonade and several flavors of Crystal Light.) It's worth noting that you cannot use the SodaStream to add carbonation directly to fruit juice or any beverage other than water. Owners note at Amazon.com that doing so will void the warranty on the machine (and, according to some who tried it anyway, can make a mess). If determined to do so, you can make plain seltzer and mix it with fruit juice or fruit juice concentrate.
So far, SodaStream dominates the market for home soda machines. A rival product, the Primo Flavorstation, was introduced last year, but so far it has fewer than a dozen reviews at Amazon.com, while a comparable SodaStream model has more than 400. Another device, called the U-Fizz, can add carbonation to any liquid by creating a reaction between vinegar and baking soda. Because it uses a full pint of vinegar to carbonate a single liter of liquid, it isn't really a cost-effective alternative to other home soda makers. It's marketed mainly as a toy for science geeks, rather than a serious product for the kitchen. Given the success of the SodaStream, however, it seems likely that more alternatives will continue to emerge, offering a wider range of options to soda and seltzer drinkers looking to mix their own.
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