With CSDs battling the anti-sugar lobby, Tom Vierhile takes a look at an alternative to sweet soft drinks. Let's not knock it until we've tried it, though, okay?

The tradition of drinking vinegar dates back centuries in Japan, where Samurai warriors reportedly drank apple cider vinegar to boost strength in preparation for battle. The rest of the world is only now beginning to catch on to Japan’s secret, as drinking vinegar is beginning to stake a claim as a rising trend to watch in soft drinks, cocktails and more.

Soft drinks don’t have to be sweet, it just seems that way, given the huge footprint of CSDs in the beverage aisle. But, attitudes toward sugar consumption are changing as consumers question the role of sugar in the diet and its possible role in promoting obesity. Datamonitor Consumer’s 2014 Global Consumer Survey found that 28% of consumers globally are either “very” or “extremely concerned” about “too much sugar” in food and beverage products.

The perception that any amount of sugar at all is “safe” is also beginning to erode, a potentially disturbing finding for beverages that are naturally sweet, like fruit juice. The International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2014 Food & Health Survey of US consumers documented a ten-point drop in the percentage of consumers saying that it is true that “moderate amounts of sugar can be part of an overall healthful diet” as the response slid from 84% in 2013 to 74% in 2014.

Nobody is predicting the demise of sweet drinks, but sugar’s loss may be sour’s gain. It is already happening at the bar, where vinegar cocktails have become an unexpected new taste sensation. Trendy bars in New York City are using vinegar in place of ingredients like lemon and lime to give cocktails a tart freshness and a surprising tanginess. The practice is now spreading to Europe, leading to speculation that the next hot flavour trend in cocktails may be savoury flavours.

But, are consumers ready to embrace vinegar-flavored soft drinks? They are, if they follow the example set by consumers in Japan. According to Judy Tan, co-founder of Genki-Su – a Portland, OR-based company that markets a line of drinking vinegars – a whopping “70% of Japanese consumers consume drinking vinegar”. She adds that “vinegar bars are common in Japan”, which suggests a social aspect to vinegar drink consumption that is similar to that experienced at coffee shops and bars like Starbucks.

In cultures that did not grow up with the tradition of drinking vinegar, the myriad health benefits of drinkable vinegar – enhanced digestion, increased energy, decreased muscle pain and more – are expected to convince the wary to give drinking vinegar a try. Toward this goal, Genki-Su recently introduced to the US market a line of coconut vinegar-based Tart Tonic Sparkling Drinking Vinegars with fresh Japanese fruits in flavours like Yuzu Citron and Hawaiian Ginger. Refreshingly tart and sweet, the drinks contain no added sugar, and have just 12 calories per 12oz bottle.

Vinegar, especially apple cider vinegar, has long been sold as a health tonic in markets like the US, where it is consumed a tablespoon or two at a time. But, it has yet to really make a true leap to the beverage aisle.

Taking the concept of drinkable vinegar to the next level may require breaking out of the ethnic box that can stereotype drinkable vinegar as just another odd beverage concept emanating from Japan, a country that has a well-earned reputation for unusual beverage innovation. If so, new Gravity apple cider vinegar drink may prove to be a good test case for the concept. New in the US, Gravity is marketed more along the lines of a value-added fruit juice drink than a vinegar drink, and the brand is aiming for distribution in health and natural products supermarkets to reach out to new consumers.

That could help Gravity leverage interest in so-called “detox” and “cleanse” products, a broad classification that includes apple cider vinegar, while side-stepping the “why should I drink vinegar in the first place” question. Gravity itself contains 30% apple juice in each 12oz bottle, a hint of honey and two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar – not an overwhelming amount, but enough to bring the latter’s health benefits into play. Specifically, the makers of Gravity talk about how apple cider vinegar boosts energy, promotes heart health and aids weight management. Apple cider vinegar is also believed to help the body burn calories faster.

These launches could prove to be the first of many in Western markets if medical research backs up the purported health benefits of drinkable vinegar and consumers warm to the fruit-flavoured vinegar concept that masks the sometimes harsh flavour of vinegar. There are encouraging signs in that direction. A recent report published by the Institute of Food Technologists in the Journal of Food Science has bolstered the case for drinkable vinegar, suggesting that vinegar may play a role in reducing the effects of diabetes and may even help slow the aging process. Arguably the most promising finding is that daily consumption of vinegar may help lower appetite and lead to weight loss.

Assuming these results are corroborated in subsequent studies, drinkable vinegar could well become the world’s next great superfood.