Alison Hinson jokingly called it her “breakfast of champions.”

Whole-grain cereal with skim milk? A bowl of fresh fruit with a dollop of low-fat yogurt?

Nope. It was a can of Pepsi. And, oh yes, she threw a bagel in there too.

Before she started her family, Hinson was an admitted Pepsi addict who drank a can or two every day. Then she got pregnant and developed gestational diabetes. The doctor put the brakes on her soda habit.

“They allowed me to have one soda every other day,” said Hinson, a business consultant who lives in Yarmouth. “I was on bed rest at home.”

Hinson is one of a growing number of soda lovers who are cutting back on the sugary drinks — or cutting them out altogether — and finding alternatives that are better for them, less expensive and easier on the environment.

Homemade beverages require some imagination, but a little creativity goes a long way. Think flavor, color and fizz, and soon you won’t be missing store-bought sodas.

The ideas offered here are not necessarily calorie-free, but they are really simple to make and significantly better options than full-sugar soda. (A typical 12-ounce can of soda contains almost 10 teaspoons of sugar.) If you’re worried about added sugar in juice, use fresh-squeezed or try on of the low-sugar varieties some companies are offering now.

Hinson found her solution — a tea-juice combo — at a gathering of new moms and tweaked the concoction to suit her own taste. The drink contains a bit of cranberry juice, another drink Hinson loved but had to cut back on when she gave up her sodas.

First, she makes 2 quarts of Raspberry Zinger tea. Then she adds half a cup to a cup of cranberry juice. And that’s it.

The original recipe called for half tea and half juice, but “I can’t even have that much cranberry juice, so I just started playing with it.”

“I always make my own tea now,” Hinson said. “That’s just what I drink.”

Cranberry juice has 130 calories per cup, so if she adds just half a cup to the tea, as she usually does, that’s just 65 calories in 2 quarts of tea.

Jo Moser, a food photographer and owner of Greenlight Studio in Portland, started making spritzers with organic grape juice, club soda and a slice of lemon or lime at home. Her concoctions grew from there.

“I felt like soda wasn’t doing well for me,” she said, “and being kind of alternative in our food and trying to do what’s the healthiest, we just gave it a try. And now our big one is the POM juice, the pomegranate juice. That’s one I have every night for my ‘cocktail.’ So it was mostly for calories, and also no synthetics. And they’re so refreshing and not oversweet.”

Moser and her family loved her creations so much, she started serving them at the studio’s small cafe. Recently, she mixed up a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice and club soda in a frosted glass that had frozen fruit in the bottom. Sometimes she mixes grapefruit juice with the orange juice.

If Moser wants a little shot of sweetness, she adds a touch of traditional Italian syrup she buys at Micucci’s or Home Goods.

Perhaps her most original idea is to take a shot or two of espresso, add some club soda and ice, and top it off with a twist of lemon.

“It’s very good on a hot day,” Moser said. “I use a really dark espresso.”

A sweeter variation, if you’re not worried about calories, uses a shot of chocolate syrup and a splash of milk instead of the lemon twist.

LOSE THE CALORIES

Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the University of Maine’s department of food science and human nutrition, said the biggest advantage to cutting back on sodas is “unnecessary calories.”

“The other problem is that soft drinks are very acidic, so they can eat away at the tooth enamel and set people up for more cavities,” she said.

Juice is somewhat acidic, too, but at least it provides other nutrients. So does milk.

“I was telling my kids — and they didn’t believe it — (that) when I was a little girl, it was a real treat to get a bottle of Coca-Cola,” Camire said. “And we were middle class. Now the price is just so cheap, people don’t think anything of getting 2-liter bottles and having it available.”

Mike Bishop, executive director of Wellspring residential health and fitness facilities, pointed out that Coke originally came in 6.5-ounce bottles. Today, many vending machines carry only 20-ounce bottles, and servings of soda at fast-food restaurants are huge.

Consumption of soda from 1950 to today has gone up 500 percent, Bishop said. Serving sizes have increased the most during the past 20 years, alongside a 10-fold increase in childhood diabetes.

Bishop takes a hard line on soda. People who are concerned about their weight “really just need to develop the mindset that ‘this is not for me.’

“Really, even a person of normal weight, it should be a rare treat,” he said. “I mean, what are you getting out of a sugary soda?”

Bishop also thinks juice is a problem because it’s so easy to consume a lot of calories quickly. He advocates eating fruit instead, and cutting all caloric drinks out of the diet except for low-fat milk.

SHRINKING THE FOOTPRINT

Not everyone who’s making their own beverages does it out of concern about weight issues. Mark McCain and his 15-year-old daughter are trying to make their environmental footprint smaller.

The problem? Their seltzer addiction. They drink three 2-liter bottles a day.

“Every week, I was loading 20 seltzer bottles into the grocery cart,” McCain said. “That’s like 100 pounds of water shipped from who knows where. Then someone has to load the bottles onto the grocery shelf. Then I drive them home in my car. It was ridiculous. Every year, I was going through about $1,000 and 1,000 plastic bottles.”

Then his daughter told him that “a lot of the bottles that are returned for deposit are shipped away as far as China for their next life, adding even more resources to the equation.”

McCain decided to do something about it. He bought a 20-pound tank of carbon dioxide for $140 and spent $22 filling it with the CO2, a coupler for $8, a regulator for $40 and a few feet of red air line for $4. Total startup cost: $214.

Now he just fills a 2-liter bottle almost to the top with tap water, adds a capful of lemon juice and screws the bottle into the tank of carbon dioxide.

“It tastes better than the store-bought, and it’s maybe 1 or 2 cents’ worth of gas to make each bottle of seltzer,” McCain said.

The family has also been doing some experimenting.

“Carbonated lemonade is great in the summertime,” McCain said. “Carbonated orange juice is pretty delicious, and probably a healthier alternative to Orangina.”

A less successful experiment involved carbonated coffee and carbonated milk.

They’ll stick with the lemonade and orange juice, thanks.

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]