This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Gettin’ Fizzy With It, first released on December 12, 2016. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
STEVE ANNEAR: Yeah, I’ve been drinking for almost five years consistently on a daily basis. Sometimes the way one might drink beers at a Patriots game. I usually pack like two, three, four for work. There was a time when I used to collect the caps to the bottles. So I’m a pretty big fan. I just—there’s something about it, I guess it’s a mix of the carbonation, the different flavors they have. In the summertime, I mean, I can like, crack a Polar seltzer and chug half of it in the initial sip. I don’t drink soda. I don’t drink juices. It’s either regular water or Polar seltzer.
CYNTHIA GRABER: It’s a New England thing. Steve is just one of—I don’t know—maybe millions of Polar seltzer-obsessed New Englanders.
NICOLA TWILLEY: And one of those obsessives wrote in to Gastropod: Leah Brunetto. She’s born, bred, and based in Boston.
LEAH BRUNETTO: So I had a very funny experience over the summer. I had a cousin of mine from Los Angeles visiting me and she was, you know, just hanging around the house and she said oh, can I have a glass of water? So I said, oh sure, you know, go in the fridge, take whatever you want. And she just kind of started laughing at me and said well, you only have this like bottled sparkling water! Like, do you have any regular water? And I said well, no, this is all I drink. It’s kind of bizarre, I guess. I’ve been drinking it my whole life and I don’t really feel like I’m refreshed if I just have a regular glass of water.
GRABER: Leah had a bunch of questions for us. Like, where does seltzer come from and when did people start drinking it?
TWILLEY: And then, understandably, given that it’s all she drinks, Leah wanted us to get back to her on whether seltzer is good for you or bad for you—she’s heard both.
GRABER: And finally, Leah wanted us to investigate a Polar seltzer phenomenon: Unicorn Kisses.
TWILLEY: And listeners, you know, your wishes are our command. So we’re going to do all of that and more. You’re listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I’m Nicola Twilley.
GRABER: And I’m Cynthia Graber. And before we burst seltzer’s bubbles, first let us tell you about a couple of our sponsors.
GRABER: And one more thing before we get back to seltzer: this is our last episode of 2016! We hope you’ve enjoyed the shows as much as we’ve enjoyed making them for you. If you have, please consider supporting us, either on our homepage, gastropod.com, or supporting us on a per-episode basis at patreon.com/gastropod. We are a totally independent show, so your support is absolutely crucial to us. And if financial support isn’t in the cards for you this year, we totally understand—please let friends and family know about us, to help us grow.
TWILLEY: For all of you who have given, a huge thank you! We have big plans for 2017, and we need all of you to chip in to make them happen.
MARCIA PELCHAT: Carbonation occurs when carbon dioxide dissolves into fluid, and it can occur naturally.
GRABER: You know, as in carbonated spring water. Marcia Pelchat is a sensory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. There’s naturally carbonated water all over the world. You mostly find it in areas where there was volcanic activity in the past.
TWILLEY: What happens is that underground water in these areas absorbs some of the carbon dioxide present in the rocks. The water get carbonated under the pressure of all of the layers of the Earth, and then when it rises up to the surface, all that gas bubbles up—as bubbles.
GRABER: And that process is something that Barry Joseph has devoted a good chunk of his life to.
BARRY JOSEPH: I’m Barry Joseph and I’m writing the first book on the history and the contemporary meaning of seltzer.
TWILLEY: So next question: how does that natural sparkling water come to be called seltzer, and not just, you know, sparkling water?
JOSEPH: Seltzer is derived from the name of one of the many spas in Europe that people would go to take the waters. There was a small town of Niederselters in Germany and Niederselters gave the name to seltzer when Selters, the water from Selters got shifted as it went from country to country .
GRABER: As Barry says, Niederselters was just one of the places where sparkling water bubbled up. All of these sites of sparkling water became what were called spas—people went there to take the waters.
JOSEPH: Nowadays, to someone like myself the idea of randomly going to a spring with water and drinking it hoping it’s going to, you know, solve my medical problems seems like not the most effective or efficient means of taking care of myself.
TWILLEY: Even so, going to a natural spring, whether the water was carbonated or not, bathing in this special water, drinking glasses of it—that’s been seen as a healthy thing to do for millennia. All the old favorites—Pliny, Hippocrates, the guys who always get quoted in the history of Western medicine—they all recommend taking spa waters for all sorts of different diseases.
GRABER: Niederselters was a favorite of northern Europeans. There was a tour guide written in 1847. And the guide described the waters as “cooling, searching, enlivening.” And those miraculous waters could cure basically everything—quote: “all disorders arising from the inactivity and weakness of the vascular system, from obstructions, obstructed secretions, hemorrhoidal affections, liver and bilious complaints, rheumatism, and scrofula.”
TWILLEY: In fact, the only people these magical Niederselters waters couldn’t help were patients where their stomachs were “very weak and disposed to flatulency.” Poor dudes.
GRABER: But could this spa water actually help? Could there possibly be any medical explanation for the health benefits of taking the sparkling waters?
JOSEPH: When water bubbles up from the ground and attracts and leaches the the surrounding minerals, that means when people drink the waters they’ll also be getting those minerals. And some of these minerals do have medicinal properties.
TWILLEY: Like, for example, some of the water had iron dissolved in it. That would be good if you were anemic. Some had sulfate and magnesium, which could provide, ahem, relief if you were a little backed up.
GRABER: So, in certain cases, maybe the water did actually help. But those were probably a small percentage of all the people who traveled to a particular spa. Really, most people didn’t know what was wrong with them, and they just would try anything that might help.
JOSEPH: But when you think back hundreds of years, when people didn’t understand why they were sick or understand the properties that they would need to imbibe to be able to correct something in their body, hearing just reports that something was healthy for certain types of people would be enough to make someone go somewhere. And so when I think about it today, I think if you had to go into a drugstore and get a certain type of medicine, let’s say it was just aspirin, you know where to go. You go to the section and you look for the aspirin bottles and you can check out the different labels. But imagine you went in and all the labels were gone and all you know was there was medicine and it helped some people because they said go to this store because it helped me. Well, going to take the waters a few hundred years ago is the same thing. It was like going into a pharmacy without having any labels and just going on what other people had told you. Sometimes those waters didn’t do anything. Other times it was exactly what somebody needed.
TWILLEY: And then there’s something else, something much more straightforward. Going to a spa meant getting out of the city, away from polluted urban water.
JOSEPH: And drinking healthy water from a spa, which by definition was usually away from an a big urban environment, meant they were just drinking healthy water for a period of time and that could be enough to help them. So whether it was drinking the seltzer itself or getting away from urban water, the experience of going to a spa meant somebody was doing something better for themselves.
GRABER: One of the things people went to the spas for was to get help with their digestive system. As we said, maybe some minerals helped. Clean water certainly could help. And of course there’s the placebo effect.
TWILLEY: But what about the carbonation? That’s what this show is about—the bubbles. Are they something that could conceivably help with digestion?
GRABER: It turns that scientists have studied this recently. They looked into whether carbonation could affect acid reflux.
PELCHAT: And what they found was that if you compare carbonated beverages to equivalent not carbonated beverages you don’t see any differences in GERD.
TWILLEY: GERD is gastroesophageal reflux disease, basically extreme acid reflux. Marcia has reviewed all of the studies on the possible health benefits of fizzy water, and she basically only found one kind-of-maybe-sort-of-not-really benefit.
PELCHAT: Drinking the beverage before a meal might cause you to eat a little less food. I don’t know that it makes a huge amount of difference whether it’s carbonated. It is true that, you know, the gas sort of goes to the top of the stomach and you might think that you’d feel some bloating and maybe feel like eating a little less. But sadly, no.
GRABER: Drinking a glass of seltzer might make you eat a little less at a meal, but you’d probably get the same effect if you drink a glass of still water.
TWILLEY: There goes science bursting all of seltzer’s bubbles. But people at the time, they didn’t have a Marcia to call up and ask. And like Barry said, going to a spa seemed to work sometimes for some people. So sparkling water got a reputation as a cure.
GRABER: At first, only rich people could travel to these spas. But everyone wanted a sip of these all-powerful waters.
JOSEPH: So places like Niederselters in the eighteenth century bottled the water in these clay jugs. The entire town was based around either taking care of people coming to the spa, whether because you were helping them drink the waters or you ran the hotels and restaurants or you worked in the plant that making the clay jugs, filling them with the seltzer, putting the corks in, getting them on the carriages to get them to out to ports, and hoping that none of the bandits would steal them along the way. Everything in Niederselters was about the bottles.
TWILLEY: This was before the mass manufacture of glass bottles, before container ships, and yet those jugs from Niederselters made their way around the entire world. And the water was called something slightly different everywhere it ended up.
GRABER: And I’m getting stuck with attempting to pronounce all these names. In Turkey, it was called ‘seltz suyu.’ In Russian it was called ‘selterskaja,’ and ‘eau de seltz’ in French. I got that one for sure.
TWILLEY: And, as you might have guessed, in America, it was called seltzer.
GRABER: This is all in the 1700s. And for most of that century we could not make our own carbonated water. If you wanted to get a hold of seltzer, you had to either go to the spa or get that spa water shipped to you.
JOSEPH: The first person to figure out and educate others about how to manufacture seltzer was Joseph Priestley. He’s a really interesting figure. He’s someone who’s well known in many circles because as a scientist he figured out how oxygen worked, how it was fixed. He is known amongst Unitarians as one of the first Unitarians who came to the US and helped spread it here. But in seltzer lore he’s the man who figured out how to create seltzer.
TWILLEY: And he stole the trick from a natural source of fizziness: fermenting beer. As it happens, Priestley and his wife lived right next to a pub, which is always handy.
JOSEPH: And he started noticing in the brewery that something interesting was happening over the vats, because the CO2 was forming. And so he thought, can I capture that CO2 and what would happen if I mixed it? And so he started experimenting at this pub, they let him do it, and then moved it back into his laboratory. And he realized that if you move water through CO2, the CO2 will go into the water, and if you can keep it pressurized you have carbonated water. And at the time he was speaking with the head of the Navy and they were trying to figure out what to do about scurvy. Now, it took many many years for the British Navy to figure out that what you needed was citrus, even though other people knew it at the time. But he said well, maybe it’s seltzer.
GRABER: This is because the Brits, like a lot of other people around the world, they thought that sparkling water could potentially cure everything.
JOSEPH: Joseph Priestley created for the British Navy what they hoped would be the solution finally to scurvy: onboard seltzer machines.
TWILLEY: Like a proto Sodastream!
JOSEPH: And while that didn’t work, what it ended up doing was giving him an opportunity to write about what he did and explain it to others. And that book came out in 1772, and it was a popular pamphlet that explained to anybody who understood anything about the basics of science how they can make their own seltzer. At the time, it was read by a gentleman in Switzerland who was a watchmaker who was inspired by it and then moved his company to London and opened Schweppes, which was the first seltzer company. And within a generation it became the Queen’s drink.
GRABER: Schweppes was marketing their new drink as medicine.
JOSEPH: So some of the things that Schweppes promised, at least in the advertisements for those who drank the seltzer, was that it reduced fever, ease indigestion, which at the time was called biliousness, and also addressed nervous afflictions and the quote unquote debilitating consequences of hard living.
TWILLEY: Pour me a glass. So the deal is, those early artificial seltzers—they were designed to be knock-offs of real spa water.
GRABER: Different companies tried to recreate the minerals and tastes of different spas.
JOSEPH: So at the beginning of the nineteenth century, if you wanted to buy manufactured seltzer you would get it from a pharmacist. It was one of the many medicines that would be sold to you. And like most medicines it wasn’t designed to be refreshing. If it smelled bad and if it tasted bad, maybe all the better—maybe the worse it smelled and tasted, the better it was for you.
TWILLEY: So here’s this kind of icky tasting, fizzy knock-off of natural spa water, something you only drink if you’re sick. How exactly did that turn into the seltzer that Leah and Steve—and, if I’m being honest, me—are so obsessed with?
TWILLEY: OK, so when we left seltzer, it was a medicinal drink, filled with minerals that gave it a, shall we say, distinctive taste, not necessary a pleasurable one.
JOSEPH: But over time, people were interested in the carbonation aspect of it. So people started adding flavors to make it sweeter. And then they started taking out some of the harsher-tasting chemicals.
GRABER: So if you take out the minerals and the chemicals added to make it medicine, then what are you tasting when you drink carbonated water? We asked Marcia Pelchat, the sensory scientist. And surprisingly, it’s actually pretty complicated.
PELCHAT: We just don’t know that much about the sensation of carbonation and it is difficult to study.
TWILLEY: This was a bit of a shocker to me. I mean, carbonated water is just water with bubbles. So surely what you’re tasting is the bubbles, no?
PELCHAT: One of my favorite little, you know, Science Festival Day demonstrations is just to have very cold carbonated beverages and tell them to take a big mouth full. You don’t have taste receptors in your cheek.
TWILLEY: But you can still feel the burn of the bubbles.
GRABER: So yes, what that experiment shows is that you do feel that physical sting of bubbles popping in your mouth. That’s not a taste sensation, that’s a tactile thing. But it turns out that it’s not just the popping of all those tiny bubbles—there’s a lot more going on.
PELCHAT: You can in fact experience the bite of carbonation without bubbles. And that’s been shown in a number of ways. One that’s dangerous because, you know, you could gas yourselves to death, would be to just blow some carbon dioxide gas across your tongue, and when you do that it burns.
TWILLEY: Don’t try this at home, kids. Marcia’s colleagues at Monell tested it by using a hyperbaric chamber.
GRABER: That’s basically a room where scientists can control the pressure. If you’re sitting in really high pressure, it’s like you’re underground. And if the pressure is high enough, carbon dioxide is dissolved in the water but not in the form of bubbles.
PELCHAT: And they had people at drinking a carbonated beverage, so fluid with carbon dioxide added to it, but at such a high pressure that bubbles couldn’t form.
TWILLEY: But even with no bubbles stinging their cheeks, people did experience a burn.
PELCHAT: So bubbles play some role but something else is going on. What else is that?
TWILLEY: This is the part that scientists have only recently discovered. It turns out that we have a special enzyme sitting on our taste buds that turns carbon dioxide into carbonic acid.
PELCHAT: That’s the other part of carbonation, that you need this enzyme, carbonic anhydrase to feel the sting from carbonation. But also you need this enzyme to taste the sourness from the carbonic acid.
GRABER: It’s a weird thing. There’s a little bit of the carbonic acid already in the drinks, but that enzyme in our mouths actually creates more of the acid.
TWILLEY: I love the way scientists discovered this—they got the idea because of a phenomenon known as the champagne blues, where mountain climbers report that their bottle of celebratory Moet that they crack at the top of Everest tastes like crap. And it turns out that the pills that mountain climbers take for altitude sickness block that one particular enzyme. So they literally can’t taste carbonation.
GRABER: And another thing: with this enzyme, you get more of a sour taste. And sourness suppresses sweetness, so carbonated soft drinks need more sugar.
PELCHAT: And I think everybody’s familiar with not really recognizing the flavor of their favorite carbonated beverage when it goes flat.
GRABER: And that’s because without the CO2, most of the sour taste in a soda is gone, leaving just the sugar that was put in to counterbalance it.
TWILLEY: But another thing the enzyme does by creating carbonic acid is trigger something called your trigeminal system.
PELCHAT: In fact the same part of the nervous system that tells you that chili pepper is hot or that cinnamon is hot or that mustard or ginger is hot.
GRABER: And that is a different part of the sensory system than taste or smell.
TWILLEY: So we’ve got the physical sting from the bubbles, the sourness on our taste buds, and the buzz of that trigeminal irritation. There’s a lot going on in that glass of seltzer.
GRABER: And that’s before we start adding stuff. Which, according to Barry, was the next step for seltzer, once it stopped being a purely medicinal drink.
JOSEPH: And then people started thinking about well, what if we sold them in other settings? What if we made a nicer place in the pharmacy where we can serve ice cream with it maybe or tastier drinks with putting in syrups? And so by the end of the nineteenth century what you have is this full transition from you go to a pharmacist to buy icky tasting seltzer that’s good for you to instead you’re going to go with your date to a place to have a yummy, tasty drink at no longer a pharmacy, but now at a candy shop.
GRABER: You may have heard of these, even if you’ve never seen one—these places were called soda fountains.
TWILLEY: And to find out more about them, we went to a cemetery.
JEFF RICHMAN: I’m Jeff Richman and I’m the historian here at Greenwood Cemetery.
GRABER: You can find artists and inventors and civil war generals buried here.
Jeff Richman: So it’s really a Who’s Who of nineteenth-century New York and nineteenth-century America.
TWILLEY: And one of those famous people is none other than John Matthews, the Soda Fountain King.
GRABER: I’m guessing that probably none of you have ever heard of him.
TWILLEY: But he was a rock star in his time. In fact, not to brag, but he has one of the tallest and most spectacular monuments in the cemetery. It’s 35-feet tall, and it kind of looks like a soda fountain on top, with all these spouts. And then down below, there’s a marble effigy of John Matthews himself, complete with a huge hipster beard. He’s lying down and looking up at his whole life story carved into the stone. It was voted mortuary monument of the year in 1873, when it was built.
GRABER: I’m always curious about who won mortuary monument of the year.
RICHMAN: We’re looking at the Matthews monument, and John Matthews had been from England. He immigrated to the United States in 1832 and had trained in England with the art of carbonation. And brought those skills to the United States and became the number one soda fountain maker in America before his retirement in 1865. And so his factory up on First Avenue between 26th and 27th Street was employing 300 people. They had at that point manufactured 20,000 soda fountains that were across America. Just in New York City, there were 500 soda fountains that Matthews had manufactured. He pioneered the idea of adding flavors to carbonated water.
TWILLEY: And Matthews also came up with an ingenious new way of making the fizz.
RICHMAN: His business was contemporary with the construction of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And so the basic technique was they took what they called an oil of vitriol, and was actually sulfuric acid, and they poured it onto marble chips.
GRABER: The reaction between sulfuric acid and marble produces carbon dioxide.
RICHMAN: And so he bought up these chips from St. Patrick’s to use to do that. And then they would pass it through water and cool it, and within 15 minutes, half an hour of shaking, they could produce a carbonated drink.
GRABER: And so St Patrick’s Cathedral kind of fueled America’s love affair with seltzer!
TWILLEY: But today, not only has no one heard of John Matthews, the Soda Fountain King, his amazing monument is looking a bit eaten away. The carvings are done in marble, and there’s sulfuric acid in rain…
RICHMAN: And the irony here is that the chemical reaction that led to his fortune is the same chemical reaction that is destroying the marble sculpture on his monument today.
GRABER: Back in the 1800s, going to one of John Matthew’s soda fountains—this was a big deal.
JOSEPH: When you went to a soda fountain 150 years ago, you were in some ways going to see a show. The soda jerk, the person who worked behind the counter making and mixing the drinks, usually based on seltzer but maybe with cherry flavor, or pineapple or ginger, maybe raw eggs, was really performing. They would have multiple glasses where things would be thrown back and forth. The egg might be broken in one cup and then thrown through the air into the other and then seltzer might be poured in it and mixed together with a wild spoon and poured really high into the glass. Soda jerks would compete with each other to come up with the most outlandish names for their drinks and the most interesting ingredients. And over time it became a place to not only be around the soda jerks but to be around the other people who were there. Neighborhood place to hang out, hang out with others while you were drinking your egg cream or your or your cherry lime rickey, and so they became social centers. And so it meant that you might want to you know come back a few weeks later and see what the latest and greatest was that your soda jerk was doing or maybe you’re going to go across the street to the competing locations see what they had to offer.
GRABER: It must have been kind of like watching a bartender—I mean, a mixologist—at work today on crazy complicated cocktails, all the mixing and shaking and pouring.
TWILLEY: And, really, don’t imagine the fizzy drink dispenser at your local fast food joint. The soda fountains themselves were stunning. Jeff Richman took us into the archives at Green-Wood cemetery to show us the John Matthews soda fountain catalogue.
RICHMAN: So look at the variety: the Columbia, the Aphrodite.
TWILLEY: Oh my goodness and some of these are multitap ones, some of them have built-in mirrors, some of them have, I don’t know, inlay.
RICHMAN: Right. And yeah, so you could, you know, this was like buying a car. You could go with all sorts of accessories—here’s one with a chandelier built into it.
GRABER: They even had a dispenser for hot soda, called the Vesuvius!
TWILLEY: I don’t know about hot soda, if I’m being honest. But the bigger point is, by the time John Matthews monument was being built, seltzer was seriously mainstream. Everyone was drinking it, maybe dolled up in the form of fancy sodas, but still. America loved seltzer.
GRABER: And then, around World War I, people just kind of lost interest. Two things happened. The big brand name sodas—Coca Cola and Dr Pepper—they took off. And when it came to water, people started to prefer it fizz-free. Just plain water.
TWILLEY: But even as overall seltzer consumption tanked, one group of Americans kept the fizz alive.
GRABER: My people. It’s weird, actually—I mean, I always knew my family loved seltzer. But I hadn’t quite realized how ingrained it was. Seltzer was literally synonymous with Jews. At least, in America. Comedians, authors, they all used seltzer as a stand-in to mean Jewish.
JOSEPH: When I started working on this project over 10 years ago I didn’t know much about seltzer, I just started drinking it myself. But I had always known there was an association between seltzer and Jewish people. But I didn’t know why or where it came from, nor how deep it actually was. People attested to it, they said it was an important part of Jewish culture, it was important part of Jewish identity but no one could tell me why or where it came from. So I researched and I saw why people said there was an association and people said all sorts of things.
TWILLEY: People said that maybe seltzer was kosher, or maybe that seltzer helped with digesting heavy Jewish food, all those latkes and brisket.
GRABER: But none of that was true. Many drinks were kosher. And lots of immigrant communities ate heavy food.
JOSEPH: I realized that the question I’d been asking is seltzer Jewish or why is seltzer Jewish was the wrong question. The real question was why did everyone else stop drinking it? Jews I think were just like everyone else drinking seltzer, this drink from Europe—we idolized Europe at the time, 150 years ago. People were coming from Europe and wanted to maintain their traditions. Jews know how to maintain their traditions. It’s what we do. We go into other cultures and we learn how to both assimilate but also maintain our way of life. So when we look back and say why do we have this association between Jews and seltzer, I don’t think it’s something inherently about Judaism that made Jewish people want to drink seltzer, but we saw that they shifted last.
TWILLEY: So actually it’s like the Jews kept the seltzer flame burning.
GRABER: The Champagne of the Jews. Nicky and I didn’t make that up.
TWILLEY: But really, overall, and even among Jews, seltzer consumption in America just kept going down, decade after decade… until the 70s.
ORSON WELLES: Deep below the plains of Southern France in a mysterious process begun millions of years ago, Nature herself adds life to the icy waters of a single spring.
JOSEPH: And suddenly this drink comes over in a new packaging from France called Perrier. And because of the type of people that we started calling yuppies, mineral water became famous, became popular, became desired. And while that was happening many Jews were saying wait a second, don’t we already have that? Isn’t that already ours? How is that different? So Perrier in many ways reintroduced a taste for and an appreciation for and a love and a passion for seltzer-type products whether it has mineral or not and that’s allowed today’s generation to rediscover seltzer, Jewish or otherwise.
TWILLEY: But Cynthia, your people and these nouveau yuppies of the 80s, they are not the only ones rediscovering seltzer. My people, the Brits, were ahead of the curve on this one.
JOSEPH: England has a long history with creating machines for people to carbonate their waters, I understand for, you know, the butlers to have as one of their tools of the trade. And Sodastream, which entered America just over 10 years ago comes from that tradition. And at the turn of the previous century, this new tool was made for carbonating water. And I understand—I don’t know if you heard this growing up as a child, but there was a very catchy jingle.
JOSEPH: Do you know the jingle? Do you remember it? “Get busy with your fizzy!”
GRABER: Nicky, I so wanted you to start singing this jingle, but you refused.
TWILLEY: I couldn’t have done it justice. But yeah—my cousins had a Sodastream back in the 80s and I was so jealous.
GRABER: But Sodastream didn’t even get to the U.S. until about a decade ago. And they were back to advertising to MY people.
JOSEPH: And at the time if you look at the advertising, it was all geared towards Jews. It was the Jewish audience, it was saying, you know, oh, your back is so sore, don’t you hate carrying all those bottles? Make it at home. Don’t go meshugganah. You know, it’s really like over the top. And within a few years that all dropped away and you see these, you know, very WASPy families in the advertising. So it started with this initial, you know, push towards who they thought the market would be and there was a market in it, I was one of them. But over time they realized there was a broader market and I think they’ve discovered that as these trends were starting to be noticed across the country as I mentioned earlier. Suddenly you could buy it in Target and Costco.
TWILLEY: Perrier and Sodastream are just the crest of the wave, though. The real story is this tsunami of unsweetened flavored seltzers that has taken over America’s beverage market in the past decade.
GRABER: In 2004, Americans drank about 166 million gallons of fizzy water. That’s was already when seltzer was on the rise. And then by a decade later, in 2014, seltzer consumption more than doubled.
TWILLEY: Seltzer is officially back from its twentieth-century slump. It’s bigger than even in John Matthews’ day.
GRABER: Two of the biggest players in the flavored seltzer market are Polar and LaCroix.
MARY HK CHOI: Well first of all I love that you called it LaCroix, because I’m very obstinately call it LaCroix quite like completely indifferent to how anyone intended for it to be called.
TWILLEY: Mary HK Choi is a cultural correspondent and she came out in The New York Times Magazine as a full blown LaCroix addict.
GRABER: Yes, that is how it’s really pronounced.
CHOI: I don’t like body like six of them that day anymore. But like, I had one yesterday, but then prior to that I think it had been like, two days. So I’m doing better, I guess.
GRABER: Mary’s a LaCroix fangirl, Steve Annear—the guy you heard at the start of the show—he’s documented his obsession with Polar in the Boston Globe.
TWILLEY: But it’s not like Polar is some hot new startup.
ANNEAR: No, they’ve been around I think for around 134 years in Worcester. It’s a family-owned business.
GRABER: LaCroix isn’t either. It’s been popular in the Midwest for decades
TWILLEY: But not with the youth. You just have to look at the design of its can to know that.
CHOI: I keep likening like the LaCroix can to like a Cirque de Soleil poster because it’s just so noisy and I’m just like what?
TWILLEY: So how did these squaretastic cans of LaCroix end up on every hip young cultural correspondent’s desk?
GRABER: An article in Vox traced the reasons for the out-of-control growth of LaCroix. And one of the reasons can be traced to TV writers in Los Angeles.
TWILLEY: TV writers were like Jews.
GRABER: In fact, some of them—maybe many of them—maybe were Jews.
TWILLEY: Right, but my point is, they were known to like seltzer. They were onto Perrier and Pellegrino with the yuppies. And then, in 2012, LaCroix had a breakthrough. According to Vox, that’s the year that LaCroix made it onto the websites of office supply stores.
CHOI: Yeah, I totally do remember. I had actually just moved out to LA and a couple of producers that I was working with on a daily news show just started like appearing with them. And then there was like, another one and then someone else started having them and I was just like, yo, like, what’s the deal? And so I was just trying to, you know, be a little cynical, about it and be kind of snide about their just like, sudden apparent addiction to sparkling water. And then I had one. And then I was just like oh just kidding, I’m sorry.
GRABER: I have to admit that I hadn’t noticed LaCroix at first, because I’m not always the most observant, but then soon after you pointed it out to me, Nicky, I saw LaCroix everywhere. And then you Instagrammed a case we saw in a Minneapolis Whole Foods.
TWILLEY: Hashtag shame. But to be fair it did have my name on it. It was their version of cola, Ni–cola…. I don’t know. I’m sorry.
CHOI: LaCroix is so meme—y. You know, you know that if you have this like really elaborate like LaCroix display at Whole Foods in literal frickin’ Williamsburg that that’s going to be, you know, Instagram bait and everyone is going to hashtag it and going to like do all that.
TWILLEY: La Croix got so big that there’s even a parody rap about it. Accompanied by a video that really flaunts those squaretastic cans.
GRABER: The new Cristal.
TWILLEY: But like a fraction of the price! Bargain.
GRABER: Polar, the New England flavored seltzer company, they deliberately capitalized on this social media Instagram craze last April.
ANNEAR: They teased out that they were going to have some unicorn flavor or something or the other on social media. So they were trying to generate some buzz and then they rolled out this Unicorn Kisses flavor. And so they made, I think it was five thousand cases, and that was it, and they released it on around April Fool’s Day and they said there’s five thousand cases, go out, find it.
GRABER: This was big news in New England.
ANNEAR: And so I myself was like well, I want to try it. So I grabbed a bunch myself. And to this day I regret not buying more. And I mostly didn’t buy more because I was embarrassed and I was like, oh my gosh, people are going to look at me so strange walking out with all this Polar seltzer. So I kept it to one basket. And honestly to this day I regret it so much. And I have one left sitting on my desk and it’s been sitting there and I probably look at it once a week and say I kind of want to drink that but I haven’t yet. And it started showing up on eBay and Craigslist for like a hundred dollars bottle at the beginning. I think that’s why I saved the one bottle. I’m thinking maybe if I ever have kids maybe it’ll go towards their college tuition.
TWILLEY: I realize this is actually kind of beside the point, but what does Unicorn Kisses seltzer taste like?
ANNEAR: It’s — it’s weird, it’s like, kind of like a bubble gummy flavor, sort of maybe a cotton candyish flavor. It’s actually really good.
GRABER: That’s not their only trick. Polar puts out special seasonal flavors. There are dozens of varieties. Steve has maybe three different flavors in his fridge right now.
TWILLEY: Right, flavor is a big deal with LaCroix too.
CHOI: Well I mean, pamplemousse is the best and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me. But I actually like, you know how like coconut is like a highly divisive flavor? Like, I really enjoy it. So you’re like, hey everyone’s just like, it smells like it tastes like suntan lotion.
TWILLEY: That is exactly what it tastes like.
CHOI: And it’s true and I like it.
TWILLEY: Don’t even. Coconut LaCroix is rank.
GRABER: I have no opinion on the subject, I’ve never tried it. But even though I don’t have a case in the fridge personally, it’s not just social media driving this trend. In a way, we’re back to where seltzer began, in terms of medicine, but now it’s that people are trying to get away from sugar.
ANNEAR: So I think it’s like a healthy alternative thing, which helps drive a lot of it.
CHOI: Like, the one sort of bit of trivia that I know about it is that like people who are doing like the Whole 30 diet are really into LaCroix because it’s like, you know, compatible to like, weird like, dietary restrictions. And so like, I actually think because like everyone’s on a diet is why like, sparkling water’s so huge.
TWILLEY: So weirdly, seltzer is back to being associated with health again. It’s like it’s come full circle.
GRABER: Yes, sure, if you swap out sugary soda for seltzer, that is a plus. It’s definitely a better choice. But we already know from Marcia that there aren’t any particular health benefits of seltzer over water.
TWILLEY: But here’s my fear, and the fear of other seltzer addicts like Steve, and Mary, and even our listener Leah, whose questions got us started down this whole seltzer rabbit hole. Here we are pounding seltzer like there’s no tomorrow, but is it maybe bad for us? The thing I’m really worried about is my teeth. I have heard seltzer is bad for them.
PELCHAT: It is true that you know you could dissolve a mouse in a container of cola. Given enough time. And so, yeah, drinking acidic beverages will have an effect on your tooth enamel.
TWILLEY: But is carbonation acidic enough to do that kind of damage?
PELCHAT: Not really. It really doesn’t add that much acidity to the beverage. Most of the acidity comes from the other components that are added.
TWILLEY: Oh thank god. This is a huge relief. I can combine my love of seltzer with my desire to retain my teeth into old age.
GRABER: Then both Steve and Leah had a question about being refreshed. Leah said she doesn’t feel refreshed unless she drinks sparkling water. But Steve—he’s worried that refreshment is just an illusion.
ANNEAR: The biggest debate and I still—I still don’t buy it—is that, is drinking seltzer water all day equivalent to drinking water all day? And I always feel like I’m not as hydrated if I’m just drinking seltzer all day as compared to if I’m drinking water as well.
TWILLEY: This one is complicated, actually. Marcia told us that her colleagues have shown that seltzer is more thirst-quenching than plain water. But they’re equally hydrating.
GRABER: So there could potentially be a problem for seltzer. If you feel like your thirst has been quenched and you stop drinking too soon, then maybe you’re not getting as hydrated as you need to be. That’s just a guess, it has not been studied in the lab. But, really, Steve, Leah, don’t stress.
PELCHAT: Seltzer is is fine for you. It’s one of the few things that I enjoy that nobody has any complaints about. You know, seltzer and celery sticks. So it’s nice that there’s something out there that we can enjoy that doesn’t do us any harm.
TWILLEY: Well, I have only one response to that.
GRABER: This is our last episode of 2016! Again, if you enjoy Gastropod, remember, Nicky and are totally independent, and we are counting on your support to make 2017 happen. You can chip in at gastropod.com or at patreon.com/gastropod.
TWILLEY: Happy holidays of whatever flavor you celebrate, and we’ll be back in the new year with lots of deliciousness for your ears.