A small brand squeezes past the big names.
How We Tested
Few images are more representative of American can-do spirit than the childhood lemonade stand. And there’s a good reason why lemonade is the choice of these budding entrepreneurs: It’s very simple to make. So why is it so hard to find a great-tasting supermarket version?
When we last tasted lemonade, we recommended just three of the nine we sampled. All of those had ingredient lists that stuck closely to the bare-bones traditional recipe of water, lemon juice, and sugar, without preservatives or artificial flavors. We praised our winner for its big flavor and short ingredient list. In the years since, though, more brands have taken a stab at “simpler” supermarket lemonade. One brand even includes the word in its moniker—Simply Lemonade, introduced by the Coca-Cola Company in 2006, has just four ingredients and now outsells every other lemonade by 300 percent. A smaller brand also caught our attention for its locally sourced ingredients and straightforward recipe.
To see if these newcomers might have elevated store-bought lemonade, we pitted them against our previous winner and the four top-selling nationally available products from the frozen, refrigerated, and bottled soft drink sections of the supermarket.
Tasters wanted big lemon flavor and gave high scores to tart lemonades and low marks to products that seemed overly sweet. Tartness in lemonade nearly always comes from citric acid, usually lemon juice, so it was no surprise that tasters preferred products with more than 10 percent lemon juice, calling them the tartest and freshest. Our top choice reported a whopping 20 percent juice, while lemonades at the bottom of our ranking pulled only single digits or, in the case of one product, 0 percent (it’s made tart with chemical citric acid instead of lemon juice). But there was one noticeable exception: One lemonade, which plummeted to the very bottom of our ranking, boasted a moderate 10 percent fruit juice. When we measured each lemonade’s acidity to understand lemon juice’s impact on taste, things started to line up. While other lemonades define “juice” as strictly juice from lemons, this brand uses a citrus blend that includes sweeter citrus like orange, which dampens the pleasantly puckering taste of lemon.
Since tasters rated sweet products low, we looked into sugar, too. In grams, our favorite lemonades had the most sugar—because our winning products have lots of lemon juice, more sugar is needed to balance the acidity. But when we checked out ingredient labels for type of sweetener used, we made a key discovery: Three out of four of our recommended products used sucrose, while all our least favorite products used corn syrup. Tasters were put off by the sappy texture of lemonades sweetened with corn syrup and found those made with sucrose more crisp and refreshing.
While we were looking at ingredient labels, we noticed something else: Just as in our previous testing, scores dropped as ingredient lists got longer. Our top pick contains just three simple ingredients—water, lemon juice, and pure cane sugar—while lemonades at the bottom of our ranking are filled with preservatives and artificial flavors. Luckily, there’s an easy way to escape products riddled by additives without poring over ingredient labels: Avoid unrefrigerated lemonades. The citric acid in lemon juice is a natural preservative, so if you’re storing lemonade only short-term in the fridge, no chemicals are needed. Both of the brands we picked from the unrefrigerated soft-drink aisle were loaded with artificial stuff because they’re formulated for a longer shelf life. But if you do need to plan ahead, we found one frozen lemonade concentrate that was great-tasting and preservative-free and, with a shelf life of two years, it’s the best option when you want to stock up.
In the end, one product earned the top spot in our ranking. When we compared it with our recipe for homemade lemonade, it was clear why. With the most lemon juice and shortest ingredient list in our lineup, our winning lemonade is the only product that comes close to the 25 percent lemon juice and 29 grams of sugar we prefer in our homemade recipe. Our tasters praised this lemonade for its balanced tang and clean, fresh-squeezed flavor, but when we pressed manufacturers for more details about how they process their lemonade, we found that our winner doesn’t just taste homemade; it’s made like it, too. Unlike most major manufacturers, this maker keeps no inventory. Instead, Florida lemons are squeezed, blended with sugar and water, and bottled within 24 hours after receiving each order. This also means, however, that the availability of this lemonade fluctuates seasonally as demand for lemonade trickles out in colder months. It’s also available in only 32 states while our runner-up is found nationally year-round. When we can’t find our winner on supermarket shelves, we’ll be reaching for our runner-up, but for a perfectly tart refreshing drink that satisfies summer cravings, our winner is worth the hunt.