America No Longer Drowning Its Sorrows in Soda

America's restaurants have a drinking problem. More accurately, a lack-of-drinking problem: Customers are ordering fewer drinks than they used to, according to market research firm the NPD Group and as reported by Nation's Restaurant News.

Juice is down 3 percent from a year ago. Noncarbonated soft drinks are down 4 percent. And regular carbonated soft drinks are down a whopping 7 percent, or 846 million fewer sodas ordered.

I'll believe that Americans are actually eating and drinking more wisely when the obesity statistics turn around. But the news does seem to suggest a certain health consciousness, as consumers appear to come around to the concept that drinking soda is one of the quickest ways to load up with empty calories. (The fact that shakes/malts/floats are up 16 million servings and smoothies are up a whopping 20 percent may not spell such good news, but the 846 million missing sodas are the big story here.)

The analysis from the market research expert is not particularly clear on what's going on:

"[According to NPD analyst Bonnie Riggs, while] the elimination of high-calorie, low-nutrition beverages like carbonated soft drinks would seem to indicate that health is a motivator, servings of beverages such as milk and juice, which both have noted health benefits, have not increased. Further, she noted that while the recession likely is behind the increase in orders of tap water, it certainly doesn’t explain the uptick in alcoholic beverages over the last few years."

This seems to have strayed at least a little bit into the realm of voodoo analysis. Couldn't people be perceiving juice and milk as fattening, too, regardless of their health benefits? And what goes better with a stubborn recession than a nice, stiff alcoholic drink?

Better analysis comes from global consulting firm AlixPartners, which suggests that if you want to sell people beverages, it helps to put some effort into choices that are interesting and new. Almost every new farm-to-fork restaurant I've been to in the past year has offered house-made sodas, herbal-infused elixirs, low-alcohol drinks, or all three. And while house-made ginger beer may not be tremendously better for us than an ice-cold Coke, it at least has the potential to have a better impact on the local economy.

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