12 soft drinks ranked best to worst

We’ve ranked 12 popular drinks from best to worst based on their nutritional value – in particular sugar and fat. Read on to quench your thirst the heart-healthy way.

1. Water

Glass of water

Hydrating, inexpensive and sugar-free: water is the best choice for drinking over the day. If you want to give it some flavour without adding sugar, try adding ice cubes and fresh mint or strips of cucumber.

2. Tea or coffee without sugar

Cup of coffee

Although some people think that the caffeine in tea and coffee might damage their health, this isn’t the case for most people. In fact, drinking moderate amounts (4-5 cups a day) of tea or coffee has been linked to benefits for reducing risk of CVD and type 2 diabetes.

Adding a 5g teaspoon of sugar to 5 cups of tea or coffee adds the same as 20 rich tea biscuits or three Mars bars

Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than others and find that it can be associated with palpitations. If this is you, it’s worth limiting the amount you drink. Children and young people are also likely to be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine too. Pregnant women are advised to limit the amount of caffeine they have to 200 milligrams (mg) a day. This is about the same as two mugs of instant coffee.

Bear in mind that adding milk and cream will add fat and calories. If you like your drink with milk, use low-fat milk – semi-skimmed, 1% or skimmed.

3. Sugar-free drinks e.g. sugar-free cola, sugar-free lemonade, and no-added-sugar squash 

Can of sugar-free fizzy drink

These drinks contain artificial sweeteners, which will provide a sweet taste but won’t have an effect on blood sugar levels, which is good for people with diabetes. Being almost calorie-free, they also mean that the amount of energy provided by the drinks is reduced compared to sugar containing versions. However, the jury is still out about whether this will lead to weight loss or whether people consciously or unconsciously make up for the energy difference by eating more.

And even sugar-free fizzy drinks are still acidic (because of the carbonation) which can damage your teeth.

4. Fruit juice (150mls)

Glass of fresh orange juice

Stick to 150mls and a glass of pure, unsweetened juice can count as one of your 5 a day. But be aware that even though fruit juice will come with vitamins, it also contains free sugars – 2-3 tsp in a small glass. A small 150ml glass of orange juice will contain the equivalent of three oranges but without the fibre that would help to fill you up if you were to eat them whole.

Be aware that even though fruit juice will come with vitamins, it also contains free sugars

Be aware that you should not drink grapefruit juice if you’re taking calcium channel blockers (such as nifedipine, diltiazem and verapamil) or simvastatin, a type of statin. If you’re taking atorvastatin, another statin, you can drink grapefruit juice, but not in large quantities (more than 1.2 litres a day – for context, most large cartons of grapefruit juice are 1 litre). If you take any other type of statin, grapefruit is not thought to be a problem.

5. Tea/coffee with added sugar

Tea with a spoonful of sugar

There may be health benefits to drinking tea and coffee, but if you take your tea or coffee with sugar, honey or syrups it can add up. Adding a 5g teaspoon of sugar to 5 cups of tea or coffee over the day adds 100 calories or 700kcals over the week – the same amount of energy as 20 rich tea biscuits or three Mars bars. It’s less than in a sugar-sweetened soft drink, but if you cut out the sugar in your tea and coffee, it could help you to lose around 10lb over a year.

Try cutting down gradually by a ¼ of a teaspoon at a time until you get used to the taste. Once you’ve made the change you’ll be surprised at how your taste-buds adapt.

6. Fruit juice drink with added sugar

Fruit juice with added sugar

Fruit juice is sweet already, but fruit juice drinks usually have sugar added to them as well. Before you choose a juice, have a look at the ingredients list to see if sugar has been added. The term “juice drink” is often a clue that sugar has been added, while “pure juice” means that sugar hasn’t been added.

Before you choose a juice, have a look at the ingredients list to see if sugar has been added

Tropical fruit juice drinks (such as mango or lychee) or drinks made from cranberries, raspberries or cherries are often the ones to watch for. If you like these drinks, look for no-added-sugar versions, though bear in mind they will still contain fruit juice and therefore sugar.

7. Squash with added sugar

Strawberry squash drink

Diluting a small amount of squash with water can make it seem quite harmless, but in actual fact a squash or cordial made with sugar comes with around 3 teaspoons of sugar per glass.

Don’t be deceived by claims such as “high juice” – these can still contain a lot of sugar. No-added sugar versions would be a better choice - and they should also cost you less than sugar-sweetened versions now the levy on sugar sweetened drinks has been introduced.

  • Worried you're addicted to sugar? Get our expert's tips for breaking your sugary habits.

8. Fizzy lemonade, fizzy orange and ginger beer (standard versions made with sugar)

Fizzy orange drink

Fruit-flavoured fizzy drinks like lemonade and fizzy orange are slightly better choices than cola, but not ideal as your regular drink. The combination of sugar and acid can damage your teeth, and over time, excess calories from a high-sugar diet can lead to weight gain.

This is the sugar content in a standard 330ml can:

  • Ginger beer – 16g sugar
  • Fizzy orange – 15g sugar
  • Lemonade – 14g sugar

Sugar-free versions of all these drinks are a better option (see sugar-free drinks, above) and the sugar content will vary between brands, so check the nutrition information if you are going for the option with sugar.

9. Tonic water

Glass of tonic water with lemon

Tonic water might sound innocent, but like other carbonated drinks and mixers, it can be high in sugar, unless you chose “slimline” or “diet” versions.  A standard serving of tonic water is often smaller, which might mean that you might drink less sugar per portion, but for the same portion size, it’s comparable to other sugary fizzy drinks (7.4g sugar per 150ml can).

Quinine has been found to interact with some medications has been linked with irregular heart rhythms

Tonic water gets its bitter flavour from quinine. This has been found to interact with some medications, including digoxin and warfarin, and has also been linked with irregular heart rhythms when prescribed as a medication.

Dry ginger ale has a similar sugar content with 7.2g sugar per 150ml can.

10. Cola

Glass of cola

A can of regular cola contains seven teaspoons of sugar (35g), so if you drink this regularly, it’s bad news for your waistline and your teeth. Choose a sugar-free cola instead, or even better, switch to water or unsweetened tea or coffee.

11. Energy drinks

Bottles of blue energy drink

Energy drinks come with a price premium due to their added ingredients such as taurine and guarana, as well as caffeine.

While the marketing suggests that these drinks will give you more energy, there aren’t any approved claims that consuming food and drinks supplemented with these ingredients can help to reduce fatigue, enhance endurance, help with energy metabolism or act as an antioxidant. In reality, the energy in energy drinks mainly comes from sugar.

In reality, the energy in energy drinks mainly comes from sugar

A moderate intake of caffeine shouldn’t be a problem to your heart health, but some people, especially children, are more sensitive than others to its effects. Energy drinks are also not recommended for pregnant or breastfeeding women and children. In March 2018, UK supermarkets decided to stop selling them to children under 16.

If you are drinking these type of drinks to energise yourself for an exercise session, be aware that the sugar they contain could mean you consume more calories than you burn, which is a disadvantage if you are trying to lose weight.

‘Zero’ or ‘diet’ versions of energy drinks are also available, using sweeteners instead of sugar, so they’re a better choice in terms of calories. But if you are relying on these drinks regularly as a pick-me-up it might be better to try to tackle the reasons why you feel low on energy.

12. Hot chocolate or flavoured coffee with whipped cream

Hot chocolate with whipped cream

Whether it’s chocolate or flavoured coffees such as hazelnut or salted caramel, the sugary ingredients plus the full-fat milk and cream on top makes these indulgent drinks high in calories and saturated fat. A large caramel-flavoured blended coffee drink, for example, can come in at 450 calories – that’s three times more than a can of cola.

Many coffee shops now do “iced” versions of these drinks, but bear in mind that these won’t be any lower in fat and calories.

While these drinks are unlikely to ever be a healthy option, you can ask for changes to cut down on the calories, saturated fat and sugar. Ask for drinks to be made with low-fat milk and sugar-free syrups and avoid marshmallows on top. Keep whipped cream on top for an occasional treat and ask for a small amount rather than the regular serving.

If you’re at home, make a heart-healthy hot chocolate by mixing unsweetened cocoa powder with hot low-fat milk, and low-calorie sweetener if needed.

13. Ice cream milkshakes and freak shakes

Extreme strawberry freak shake with jelly, donut and sweets

Although there’s not much to choose between this category and the last category, ice-cream milkshakes come out as worst in our list thanks to the combination of sugar and fat.

Freak shakes can come in at over 1,000 calories – more than half of what you need for an entire day

A regular ice cream milkshake can have twice the calories of a similar sized full-sugar cola, but if you go for extras such as chocolate or biscuits blended in, the calories go even higher.

Even regular milkshake drinks without ice-cream will be high in sugar – some contain 10 tsp of sugar in a single bottle. 

Even worse are “freakshakes” – a trend which emerged a couple of years ago hasn’t yet gone away. These over-the-top creations made from ice-cream milkshake layered with cake, cream and extra decorations such as chocolate or sweets, can come in at over 1,000 calories – more than half of what you need for an entire day.

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