Posted in Food Safety on October 18, 2018
The makers of La Croix sparkling water, a cult favorite brand that’s enjoyed a resurgence in popularity over the last few years, have been hit with a lawsuit claiming that they’ve misled their customers by claiming that their product is “all natural” while using synthetic flavors. Wonder what the lawsuit is all about and why it matters? Here is what you need to know about the La Croix lawsuit.
The suit, which seeks class action status, was filed in Illinois in the first week of October by the law firm Beaumont Costales against the National Beverage Corporation, which manufactures La Croix. The lawsuit alleges that some of the ingredients advertised as all natural are in fact synthetic, and that some of those ingredients may be harmful to your health. The lawsuit characterizes this as intentionally misleading customers and seeks damages on their behalf.
The ingredients named in the lawsuit include limonene, which the suit claims can damage your kidneys and cause tumors; linalool propionate, which is claimed to be used in cancer treatment; and linalool, which the suit claims is an ingredient in cockroach insecticide.
The National Beverage Corporation defended itself publicly after new of the suit broke. They reiterated their claim that all of their flavors are natural, and that those natural flavors are derived from the oils or the essences of fruits like lime and lemon. The suit, they claimed, was baseless and without merit.
In a cheeky appeal to the devoted following that the beverage brand has developed, the La Croix marketing team also referred to themselves as a “cult” and said that they had received “emotional outcries on behalf of La Croix” in the wake of the lawsuit.
Is there any merit to the claims that the ingredients named in the suit are synthetic rather than natural flavors? It’s hard to say. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have a strict rule for what constitutes a “natural flavor.” Their working definition for the term is “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food,” which raises almost as many questions as it answers.
Because the FDA doesn’t have a strict rule defining what is or is not a natural flavor, there’s a lot that can be fit into the broad category of “natural flavors” as seen on beverage labels. Generally, manufacturers are free to mix and match different flavoring agents that the FDA classifies as Generally Recognized As Safe, or GRAS.
Also important to keep in mind here is that natural vs. artificial isn’t the best heuristic for measuring whether or not something is bad for you. With compounds both natural and artificial, it’s the dose that makes the poison – not whether or not the poison was originally extracted from something “natural” or synthesized from something “unnatural” in the lab.
The flavoring agents themselves, the combinations that are present, and the amounts that they’re present in are considered to be trade secrets; making companies list them all would be a bit like making Kentucky Fried Chicken spell out the blend of herbs and spices on their buckets of fried chicken. What’s in there exactly is the between the company in question and the FDA regulators who approve their products.
What about the specific flavoring agents named in the suit? Linalool and limonene are aromatic compounds that are fairly common in the natural world. The former is present in cinnamon and mint; the latter in citruses like oranges and lemons. Linalool propionate is found in ginger and lavender. All three of these compounds are prized for their smells. When you peel an orange, limonene is part of what you’re smelling.
So: is there any merit to the claims about these chemicals being deleterious to your health? Studies of limonene in rats have shown that very large doses can cause kidney toxicity and tumors. As Business Insider pointed out, however, a follow up study from 2013 did not find any notable toxic effects in humans.
Linalool is present in some insecticide, but it doesn’t seem to be used as an active ingredient: it’s not what’s killing off the cockroaches, according to an expert interviewed by Live Science. Instead, it’s probable that the compound is again being used for its aromatic qualities, either to attract cockroaches or to mask the smell of other chemicals that are present.
La Croix has been cagey about what exactly goes into their drinks. The company plays their cards close to their chest, and have been loathe to define what they mean by essence. A long investigation of La Croix by the Wall Street Journal did a bit to clarify the term – you get essence by taking the rinds of fruits, boiling them, and capturing the vapors that come off the top. The FDA has a broad definition, allowing the term to be used for flavors extracted from various plants and animals through a variety of processes.
Despite the secrecy, however, it seems unlikely that La Croix (which this writer drinks, like everyone else, but doesn’t find to be particularly flavorful) has any of their mysterious “natural flavors” or “essences” in high enough qualities to have you turning out like a rat in a lab study, with kidneys failing and riddled with tumors. Given the popularity of the drink, you think we’d be seeing something of a national health crisis right now if it were true. What is true is that carbonated beverages with flavors aren’t great for your teeth, exactly, no matter how much they talk about how they’re distinct from soda in their marketing materials.
Stay safe out there everyone, and enjoy a refreshing carbonated beverage of your choice!
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)