There is something comforting about the universality of soda. Any name-brand cola in the deep recesses of a gas station freezer in California will taste nearly identical to its counterpart at a diner soda fountain in Kentucky. The taste profile, meticulously crafted by chemists and flavor experts, has withstood the test of time.
In recent decades, the soda industry has seen a drop in consumption, largely due to health campaigns encouraging Americans to opt for low-sugar alternatives. However, the carbonated beverage market remains a behemoth (currently valued at a whopping $407 billion), its popularity is only increasing in some parts of the country.
Carrying the weight of the soda industry is the American Mountain West, where soda shops are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s — and their popularity is spreading northward. Western soda shops, which sell colas mixed with various dairy creamers and syrups, are springing up along the “Mormon Corridor,” a region stretching from Utah towards Idaho with a highly concentrated Mormon population.
According to The Book of Mormon, consuming alcohol, tea and coffee are strictly prohibited. Because of the various drink bans, members of the Mormon Church have turned to soda for their caffeine fix.
Until the advent of short-form video sharing on social media, the Mormon Corridor remained relatively low-profile. Aside from “Provo’s Most Eligible,” a low-production spinoff of “The Bachelor,” the daily lives of Americans in the Mormon Corridor had little to no media coverage and were rarely documented online.
The Mormon Corridor’s anonymity, however, was broken when dirty soda — a mix of Diet Coke, half and half, coconut syrup and lime — took TikTok by storm. Residents of the Mormon Corridor began sharing their favorite soda variations, and the topic began trending. Dirty soda shops such as Thirst and Swig began heavily promoting the drink in conjunction with users’ at-home soda recipes, which garnered shock, revulsion and disgust from people around the world.
In the top video on Thirst’s official TikTok account, an employee shows viewers around the soda shop and douses a carbonated fruit punch in Coffee mate. The shop’s bright colors and cheery employees belie the slew of negative reactions in the comment section.
“Soda is already super sweet, i can’t imagine adding syrup,” reads one comment, whose sentiment is echoed by almost 2,000 likes. “‘It’s not gross’ yeah ok,” chimes another user.
Accompanying the thousands of negative comments flooding the #dirtysoda tag on TikTok are reports from mainstream media outlets criticizing the regional drink. An article from popular food blog Food52 notes their surprise that dirty sodas went viral and pokes fun at Utah for its negative culinary reputation. At Vice News, a reporter visited a Swig location in Utah and described cringing at “the foamy, blazing Barbie-pink elixir.”
However, the flurry of angry TikTok comments and blog posts criticizing dirty sodas is more than just a response to breaking culinary norms. Rather, the internet backlash shines a spotlight on the insular Mormon Corridor, inciting a public debate about Mormon values and illustrating how Mormonism is becoming more visible. For those outside the Mormon community, dirty soda hatred has become a conduit for critiquing the Mormon Church.
The proliferation of Utah soda shops is accompanied by a spread of Mormon culture formerly contained within a thin strip of western land. By altering the fundamental nature of something so universal as soda, Mormonism asserts itself beyond the narrow social and geographic boundary in which it has operated for centuries.
Dirty soda directly reflects Mormon values insofar as they act as an alternative to the status quo and represent Mormonism’s distinct scripture. A uniquely Mormon coffee and tea ban inspired the unique drink, which changes how soda is conventionally consumed, just as Mormonism itself acts as an alternative and reshaping of mainstream Christianity.
Internet users revile dirty soda for many of the same reasons they critique the tenets of Mormonism. A quick glance at the comment section on a soda-themed TikTok reveals that most users are criticizing the soda’s taste and appearance as a means of criticizing Mormon culture itself. Chiefly, comments accuse Mormons of being out-of-touch, unhealthy and guilty of perpetuating outdated values.
Non-Mormon commenters often highlight how dirty soda’s unique composition reflects how the Mormon Corridor is an insular echo chamber. A top comment on one of Swig’s soda videos states plainly, “Utah is a different planet.” A few comments below, another user adds, “convinced utah is not a real place & is just one big inside joke.” These commenters are responding directly to both the unusual nature of the regional drink and the isolation of Utah, where over half of the population identify as Mormon. The Mormon Church is so invested in retaining control over its public narrative that leaders attempted to trademark the word “Mormon.” Comments in response to dirty soda that paint Utah as an isolated planet reflect the broader argument that Mormonism operates in a closed intellectual bubble.
Similarly, due to changing perceptions about the value of soda, soda shops face criticism for perpetuating an unhealthy drink. A major Utah publication, The Salt Lake Tribune, acknowledged that due to Mormonism’s health code, members miss out on the positive outcomes of consuming coffee and tea, such as a lower risk of Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. In some cases, the soda boom has undermined the physical health of Mormon Church members due to those risks.
Perhaps students and community leaders will heed the flood of critiques coming from all corners of the internet and open a dialogue about Mormon culture. Perhaps as Mormon soda culture heads north, the community will encounter more opposition from those beyond the corridor. Collective revulsion towards a beloved regional treat could also force Mormon community members deeper into a private life away from public scrutiny.
How the increase in both the visibility and popularity of Utah soda shops will impact the Mormon community and the greater Mormon Corridor remains to be seen. However, as it stands today, Utah’s dirty soda craze demonstrates how the combination of warp-speed digital media and a seemingly-innocuous regional drink can define national perspectives on a hidden region of America.
Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.