Seltzer Is Torture
Soda hurts me, and I’m not alone.
I do not like carbonated beverages, plain and simple. I won’t drink soda, and you’ll never catch me with a beer. Gin and tonics are a no. Sparkling water? A beast in disguise. Oh, the cocktail is not that fizzy, you say? I’ve heard that one before. And get your slushie out of my face. As I said, I do not like carbonated beverages. I do not like them at all.
I don’t just mean that they taste bad to me, the way soap or penicillin does. I mean that they hurt me. They inflict actual, physical pain on my mouth. The sensation is prickly, like having my tongue poked with hundreds of needles. On the handful of foolhardy occasions when I’ve dared take a sip of Coke, it’s felt like what I imagine sipping static electricity would feel like, at least until the pain subsides and I’m left with nothing but the hyper-saturated sweetness of a melted freezer pop. Even after I swallow, my mouth feels raw.
When I try to explain this aversion, people sometimes struggle to wrap their mind around it. “Even sparkling cider?” they ask incredulously. “Even cream soda?” Yes, even sparkling cider. Yes, even cream soda. Occasionally, people try to relate: “Oh, I hate carbonation too … except in champagne.” Whatever these people mean by “hate” is clearly not the same thing I mean. The specifics of the drink make no difference to me. The carbonation itself is the problem.
Part of me wonders whether this all traces back to an incident from my childhood. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I accidentally ate a piece of sushi covered in more wasabi than I’d bargained for and, in a panic, took a big gulp of water—except the water wasn’t water; it was seltzer, and I spit it all over the table. A couple of years later, I tried root beer at day camp and spat that out too. By that point, I’d pretty much learned my lesson.
So why am I like this? It’s not as though my mouth is hypersensitive to all tastes and sensations. I pop Sour Skittles at the movies and have a pretty high spice tolerance. My issue is more specific and, given that Americans consume more than 40 gallons of soda a person each year, very rare. But apparently I’m not the only one: On Reddit’s r/unpopularopinion forum and others like it, never-fizzers find common cause. Drinking carbonated beverages is “kinda masochist.” It’s “pure agony.” It’s like “swallowing battery acid.” “I feel like I’m drinking flesh eating bacteria,” one Redditor writes. “I swear I thought I was the only one who thinks they hurt,” another replies.
You can find dozens of posts like these online—so many, in fact, that you may begin to wonder: How many times can an unpopular opinion be posted before it ceases to qualify as an unpopular opinion? Scientists, for their part, have documented at least one instance of an anaphylactic reaction to sparkling water. That reaction was not caused by the bubbles themselves, but neither is carbonation’s distinctive mouthfeel. For a long time, people assumed that the fizzy sensation was just the tactile experience of having bubbles pop inside your mouth. Early suspicions to the contrary came from mountaineers, who reported that when they raised a toast at the summit, their bubbly champagne tasted flat. In 2013, researchers confirmed that the “bite” of carbonation is not dependent on bubbles: Even after drinking sparkling water in a pressure chamber, where bubbles cannot form, test subjects still reported feeling the slight “sting, burn, or pungency” associated with fizzy drinks, both on the tip of their tongue and at the back of their throat.
The source of that bite, scientists determined, is the carbonic acid formed when enzymes in the mouth break down carbon dioxide. (That process happens to be inhibited by a medication commonly taken by mountaineers to stave off altitude sickness.) The acid activates pain receptors, Earl Carstens, a neurobiologist at UC Davis, told me, so the experience of drinking a carbonated beverage should be sharp and irritating for everyone. In that sense, the weird thing is not that some people hate carbonation; it’s that anyone likes it at all. Social conditioning may play a role: We accept the pain of drinking soda because we’re taught that it’s okay. Or perhaps the mild pain is associated with a pleasurable release of endorphins, as can occur when people eat a spicy food. Both of those factors are likely in play, Carstens said.
But as my experience shows, not everyone experiences carbonic-acid pain the same way. Some people feel a refreshing tickle, others a chemical assault. No one knows why. Scientists have traced other aversions—to cilantro, for example, or tannic wines—to natural variations in human taste and smell receptors. “We are not at the same place in our knowledge of carbonation,” Emily Liman, a neurobiologist at the University of Southern California, told me. The problem faced by sodaphobes may yet turn out to have a genetic explanation, but for the moment, scientists don’t even understand exactly which cells are involved in the sensation. Pain receptors (such as the ones that detect spiciness) and taste cells (such as the ones that detect sourness) seem to play a part in feeling carbonation, Liman said, but it’s unclear exactly which cells contribute.
In short, there’s no way to know whether I’m the victim of busted mouth biology, or of some long-repressed experience that bubbles up as oral pain, or of something else entirely. In any case, hating carbonation only means that I have to do a lot of polite declining. It’s not a huge deal, yet I sometimes find myself perturbed to to be cut off from a whole sector of human experience, to dislike something that almost everyone else seems to like, and to dislike it not because of some contrarian impulse or principled objection but because of my physiology or my psychology. Best not to indulge such musings, though—they can easily give way to temptation. Last summer, after years of strict avoidance, I ordered a cider at a bar, thinking that maybe, after all these years, something had changed. Nope!