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I tried the viral ‘healthy Coke’ with balsamic vinegar and it’s not as bad as it sounds

It actually works, but you have to use the right type of balsamic vinegar.

"So we’re just doing salad dressing soda now?"

"Y’all got fooled if you tried it."

"I’m calling the police!"

These are just a few of the comments on Amanda Jones’ viral TikTok with a short but sweet (and sour) recipe for balsamic vinegar soda.

It sounds outlandish to many, maybe even most, but there’s a long history of vinegar-based beverages and sodas. Switchel, a drink based on apple cider vinegar, sweeteners like honey or molasses, and flavorings such as ginger, has been used for hundreds of years as a farmer’s refresher. And if you’ve ever had a fancy fruity and herbal cocktail at a swanky bar, it probably started with a shrub, a "drinking vinegar" syrup with a mix of a dazzling array of flavorings, from basil to berries to, yes, balsamic.

Jones says she got the recipe from her Pilates instructor and has been drinking it regularly for a couple of years. She’s an LA-based actor, and during the height of the pandemic when the film industry slowed to a crawl, she spent many days alone recording auditions into a screen. Like many of us, she turned to social media for a creative outlet in between. It filled a need for connection as well, she says, because unlike that solo screen recording into the void, there’s feedback almost immediately.

It’s a double-edged sword.

The viral "healthy Coke" drink has just two ingredients: flavored sparkling water and balsamic vinegar.
The viral "healthy Coke" drink has just two ingredients: flavored sparkling water and balsamic vinegar.Heather Martin

Now that the entertainment industry is firing back up, Jones has been pretty busy filming parts for two movie roles, but she’s been making an effort to post a few things to keep her hand in. This little video guide to the favorite drink of hers was made quickly as an almost offhand reaction to several "Diet Coke break" TikToks she saw. She doesn’t drink much soda, and she wanted to put her healthier take out there, so she posted it before going to bed without another thought. When she woke up, it had over 600,000 views. After only two days, it has over 5.4 million.

Jones says initially most of the comments were negative to say the least; for her own sanity, she stopped reading the comments, some of which were far enough over the line that she was considering telling everyone it was a joke. But then, a few TikTokers with lots of followers posted more favorable feedback. Ashley McCrary-Mac made her own at home, and posted it to her over 200,000 followers with a positive review.

That turned the tide of the comments … somewhat. It’s now a mix of crying and laughing emojis, fear and loathing, people thinking it has to be a prank and people surprised to report they like it. That has brought back some of the fun of TikTok for Jones.

Now, for the fun part: Let’s give it a try.

In her video, Jones pours a little bit of balsamic vinegar over ice, "about half a shot glass" she told us, and then fills the rest of the glass with LaCroix sparkling water (guava-flavored, in this case, but she thinks you can use any flavor), and stirs a bit. "It tastes exactly like a Coke!" she says gleefully. But, many of the comments are adamant that it absolutely does not taste like Coke in any way, shape or form. I saw the word "rancid" used more than once. What gives?

What we have here is a problem of aging, or rather, the lack of it.

First, let’s try this recipe with what a lot of responders used, a regular aceto balsamico di Modena.

Balsamic soda made with an unaged vinegar tastes like something has gone afoul inside a kombucha factory.
Balsamic soda made with an unaged vinegar tastes like something has gone afoul inside a kombucha factory.Heather Martin

This kind of vinegar is good quality, mixing red wine vinegar and grape must (the crushed grape juice complete with skin and pulp used to make red wine), but it isn’t aged. To that, I’m adding Plum LaCroix, because although you might not have noticed it, most colas use fruit essences as background flavors. Coke and Pepsi both use citrus, and Dr. Pepper has long been rumored to use natural stone fruit flavoring, although they’re adamant they don’t use any prune juice. Plum is as close as I can get to that.

I decided to just pour some in without measuring since that’s what most of the social media victims have been doing. Unaged vinegars are thin, so it mixes up beautifully, and it really does look something like a cola. It tastes awful, though. Just awful. Have you seen the kombucha girl meme, where the “ew, no” face gives way to the “maybe yes” face? It’s like that, except both pictures are the first picture. It’s bad, and then the aftertaste is just as bad.

Even though there’s complexity to the flavor, it’s entirely overpowered by tannins and funkiness, like a bottle of red wine opened and forgotten in a beach house for a couple of years, until you find it in the back of the cupboard and decide to try it because it’s 30 miles to the nearest store and you can only find one flip flop. The wine of abandonment is angry. It has carefully cultured its resentment into vinegar in an attempt to ferment your weekend. It’s sour, gamey and as many of the comments attest, would be more at home on a salad plate than your dinner glass. In short, it’s about as much like a cola as, well, a glass of balsamic vinegar.

Aged balsamic is a different beast entirely.

If it’s good quality, the grape must might come before wine vinegar on the label. As long as the one you choose has the Italian IGP stamp and has been aged at least four years, it’ll be thick and syrupy with a flavor profile skewing sweet, not acidic. Just like unabandoned red wine, good balsamic vinegar has a wide range of interesting flavor notes, like cherry or prune, cocoa, and especially woody overtones due to its aging in oak casks. All that work makes it more expensive, but try a drizzle on vanilla ice cream, and you’ll never go without it again. 

I measured out a tablespoon of the good stuff. Here’s what that amount looks like in the glass.

You only need about a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar for a 12-ounce can of sparkling water.
You only need about a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar for a 12-ounce can of sparkling water.Heather Martin

Because this one is more viscous, I poured in just a little of the plum LaCroix and stirred to ensure even mixing before adding the rest of the 12-ounce can. I stirred just a little more, but not so much as to lose the fizz.

Balsamic soda made with an aged vinegar is fruity, lightly sweet and devilishly complex.
Balsamic soda made with an aged vinegar is fruity, lightly sweet and devilishly complex.Heather Martin

Does it taste like Coke?

This, this is the stuff. Depending on the variety you use, there could be any of the aforementioned notes, plus hints of vanilla, cinnamon or herbal flavors. These are all components of both vintage and modern cola flavors. I don’t think it tastes exactly like a Coke, but it is reminiscent of a cola for sure. 

A lot of commenters want to know, though, why anyone would mix this up when Diet Coke already exists? Is it really healthier? Even leaving aside the issues I have with no-calorie sweeteners as a registered dietitian, balsamic vinegar is very high in antioxidants, just like fruit and red wine. It does have a little carbohydrate, but that tablespoon is usually only about five grams and 35 calories. Here’s what that looks like compared to the 65 grams in 12 ounces of Coke.

Five grams of sugar versus 65 grams is a clear win.
Five grams of sugar versus 65 grams is a clear win.Heather Martin

You could add a whole tablespoon of honey, stir in with the vinegar at the start and still come away with a third of the carb in a can of cola. So yes, this is healthier.

Jones was glad to hear this article was going to cover those health benefits so important to her personally, as well as some of the details like how much vinegar to use. "I only use a splash!" she laughingly protested, while some of the reaction videos, including Hoda and Jenna on TODAY, use hilariously more than that.

Another bit of fun for Jones was Olipop, maker of healthier high-fiber and low-sugar craft sodas, sending her samples to try. Is she going to give up her tried and true for Olipop? She liked it, she says, but no, because she prefers mixing up her own with just a couple of ingredients.

Jones has had an exciting 2022, recently wrapping an upcoming role in a Lifetime movie entitled "Secret Diary of a Cheerleader," but I’m even more excited to report that as a result of this craziness, she has been thinking about other … let’s say unusual … takes on some old favorites. She thinks the next one will be a go-to breakfast drink of hers meant to be a healthy version of Hi-C.

What’s the main ingredient, you ask? It’s probably something unexpected, right?

Could it be beets? Sure. 

Smoked Gouda? It’s possible.

Ketchup? Fish sauce? Artichoke hearts?

I’m not at liberty to say. You’ll just have to stay tuned.