Food

I Hate How Much I Love Seltzer

Those delightful bubbles push my environmentalist principles right out of my brain. Why?

Seltzer and cracking ice.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

This post is part of Nosh, a special pop-up blog about snacks. Read more here.

My mom used to say that you became an adult when you began to like the taste of seltzer water. It took me until well after college, but I still remember her pride when, on a visit home, I took it upon myself to put an unopened Polar in the fridge to chill. It wasn’t even the proactive kitchen maintenance that got her; it was her youngest child crossing her last tracked milestone into adulthood. “Ah, your taste buds, they’ve finally matured,” she noted approvingly.

Seltzer quickly integrated itself into my New York life: It was a thing to buy at the bodega, a reward at the grocery store if I managed to keep the weight of my other purchases to a minimum, a treat for the train ride home. It’s free at most bars (though not movie theaters), and it can be a cheap and delightful offering to bring to parties—or to keep on hand as a hangover mitigator for those guests who stay overlong at your own.

If it sounds like seltzer has an outsize place in my heart, it’s because it does. My Diet Coke phase was (relatively) short-lived, I drink coffee (but as long as it contains caffeine I’m not picky), and otherwise I mostly stick to water. But seltzer is special to me, so much so that when my editor asked if seltzer counted enough as a snack to be included in this blog, I almost gasped. Obviously, seltzer is not a snack in the sense that it provides actual nourishment between meals—it has no calories and no real nutritional point. But snack is a verb with meaning that goes well beyond seeking sustenance, and the beverage is clearly a snack in the sense that it is something delightful to consume when you are bored, peckish, antsy, or pretty much any other emotion that might drive you to snack.

The other reason seltzer takes up so much room in my life is because my taste buds’ acceptance of it neatly coincided with the rise of sparkling water as a nationwide phenomenon. About 10 years ago, La Croix busted out of the Midwest, confusing the rest of us as to how it was so good, how it was pronounced, and how many more flavors it could offer. The brand landed a Letter of Recommendation in the New York Times Magazine in 2015, a cherry atop sales that had more than tripled over the previous half decade. (Eve Peyser’s subsequent GQ essay noting that seltzer, far from a trend, had always been a Jewish mainstay is also worth a read.) But the seltzer boom kept bubbling. In 2016, Vox theorized that we could likely thank the demonization of soda for the rise of seltzer, and major soda purveyors have taken note—Pepsi recently launched Bubly, and Coca Cola has had Dasani Sparkling since 2014.

But as my obsession grows alongside the rest of America’s, I’ve started to experience some dismay at my habit. It can happen as I lug out what feels like the third bag of recycling of the week or as I somehow end up spending $14 on two four-packs from the overpriced natural-foods store across the street from my apartment. More and more, I find myself thinking of my relationship with seltzer as less of a fun quirk and more of a pathology worthy of examination. There’s nothing like a brown paper bag busting under too much weight to make you wonder—what the hell am I doing carrying all this bottled water around, anyway?

Because that’s really what it is, isn’t it? It’s just packaged water. And I would never buy a six-pack of bottled water at the grocery store to bring home to my house to consume there. I try to only purchase a plain bottle of water in extenuating circumstances—most of the time, if I lack my own reusable bottle, I wait until getting home or wherever I am going to drink a glass. Or at least, that’s what I imagine I would do if I wasn’t drinking so much seltzer.

The point is, though, that somehow, over the years, seltzer’s delightful bubbles have completely scrambled my own personal ethical code. I am an environmental studies major who spent years not eating meat because it was better for the planet. I reflexively scoff at bottled water, probably because it was used in my classes to illustrate the importance of considering the entire life cycle of a product when calculating carbon footprint. (It’s not just the water or the bottle that matters, but the energy it took to create the product, to transport the product from where it’s made to where you’ll buy it and then from where you’ve bought it to where you’ll consume it, and the energy it will take to dispose of it afterward, which is important because most bottles still aren’t recycled.) Bottled water is so clearly a scam, a hilarious waste of money and energy for something you can get for free almost anywhere.

And yet, as soon as it’s carbonated and anointed with a slight hint of a citrus, all of that flies right out of my head. Sure, seltzer is an arguably a slightly more defensible purchase than bottled water, since carbonation doesn’t come out of the tap, but honestly, that’s a pretty weak argument too. I could just carbonate my own damn water—soda makers, a much greener option, have existed far before I ever got on the seltzer train. I could easily add my own spritz of fruit. (Sure, coconut or cranberry might prove tricky, but whatever.) But even though I’ve purchased soda makers as wedding presents for friends, I’ve never invested in one for myself.

Why not? The more I think about it, the more an ugly truth makes its case. I suspect my love of seltzer goes beyond my physical desire to have carbonation bounce off my tongue. I think it is one part actual enjoyment, and one part something else. That “something else” is tricky to pin down, but I think it’s a swirling mix of a piece of an identity I have crafted for myself as a seltzer aficionado, an identity that rests on seltzer being a small piece of regularly purchased luxury in my life, one that is bolstered by the healthy, bright lifestyle the purveyors of seltzer have marketed to me. And that, somehow, has proven extremely hard to let go.

Indeed, I would say it is an instructive lesson for me, thinking about my consumption in the world, to consider my own peculiar relationship with this product. It is a glaring example of just how easy it is for the path of least resistance to triumph—each choice to just buy another one is small, so small that it feels meaningless, prompted by the quick burst of joy it will bring. And the complicated self-loathing I have come to feel about my seltzer habit has ended up serving another point of self-interest: It reaffirms my belief that the only way we are going to make real progress on the largest systemic environmental issue of our time—climate change—is through massive, systemic change, not individual choices. Is seltzer really so terrible that it’s going to spin us into a deeper climate doom than we already face? No, probably not. Which is exactly the problem. My seltzer addiction is a perfect analogy of how our short-term wishes win out over our own long-term needs, and why we humans are so bad at actually doing anything substantive about this. All the water marketers had to do to get me to buy into their terrible product was make it fizz in brightly colored cans.

At least a nice crisp seltzer is a great way to weather a heat wave.

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