LaCroix Lawsuit Over Roach Poison Raises Debate Over "Natural" Flavors

A class action lawsuit alleges La Croix contains harmful chemicals.

Flickr / stockcatalog

On Monday, the law firm Beaumont Costales filed a class action lawsuit against the parent company of LaCroix, alleging that the popular seltzer brand contains chemicals that cause tumors, shrink tumors, and kill cockroaches. In the suit against National Beverage Corporation, the law firm alleges that LaCroix’s “all natural” labeling is false advertising and that in fact the drink has been found to contain the synthetic chemicals limonene, linalool propionate, and linalool, which allegedly have the above-mentioned qualities. Headlines about the lawsuit have focused on the latter chemical, which Beaumont Costales says is “used in cockroach insecticide.”

So why, with the news of the lawsuit and its revelations swirling about, am I writing this article while sipping on a cold, crisp La Croix? (It’s lemon flavor, FYI.) In short, this lawsuit is not on firm scientific footing. To show you what I mean, let’s focus on linalool, since it’s getting the most press.

The claims that linalool is an insecticide and not a natural ingredient, are misleading. In the case of this chemical, an essential oil that’s found in basil, lavender, cinnamon, and about 200 other plant species, the lawsuit appears to be based on a very selective reading of the facts. Yes, linalool has been found to be toxic to roaches, but we’re not roaches. Linalool has been found to pose basically no threat to human health. Sure, it can be synthesized, which would mean that under FDA guidelines it couldn’t be called “natural,” but the law firm has not provided any evidence that linalool or the other two chemicals listed in the lawsuit are of synthetic origin. The explanation included in the Beaumont Costales press release does not really explain anything:

“LaCroix in fact contains ingredients that have been identified by the Food and Drug Administration as synthetic,” it reads. This wording gives an inaccurate impression, though. Yes, linalool is listed among the synthetic ingredients that the FDA designates as GRAS (generally recognized as safe). But there is no FDA resource that says linalool is always synthetic. Therefore, the evidence provided by Beaumont Costales does not prove anything about whether the linalool in LaCroix is synthetic or natural, even though this is the crux of the firm’s case.

Flickr / gurucrusher

Inverse has reached out to Beaumont Costales for clarification regarding the science underlying the firm’s claims but has not received a response as of this article’s publication.

At the root of this issue is the idea of “natural” versus “artificial” flavors, one that is much less clear than these two words imply. According to FDA guidelines, natural flavors are derived from natural sources:

a natural flavor is the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

It seems pretty straightforward. But here’s the rub: While flavorists manufacture artificial flavors, at the end of the day, that molecule is the same molecule found in a flavor extracted from a natural source. In other words, whether a food product is flavored with “natural” or “artificial” linalool, the chemical is exactly the same, making it very difficult to prove that a flavor ingredient comes from a plant or a lab.

And sure, there is some mystery surrounding LaCroix’s notorious “essence” ingredient, as The Wall Street Journal reported in 2017, when LaCroix officials wouldn’t elaborate on what exactly comprises the natural ingredients.

National Beverage Corporation has unequivocally denied the accusation that LaCroix contains artificial ingredients, though, stating that its essence manufacturers assure that the ingredients are 100 percent natural. Here’s more from the company’s rebuttal:

The lawsuit provides no support for its false statements about LaCroix’s ingredients. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers “natural” on a food label to be truthful and non-misleading when “nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added.” All LaCroix product labels include an ingredient statement indicating each product contains carbonated water and natural flavors. National Beverage stands by that ingredient statement and the fact that all the flavor essences in LaCroix are natural.

There’s no question that defining “natural” and “artificial” flavors is a bit confusing. But there’s no definition that makes it accurate to say that LaCroix contains insecticide. Oh, and by the way: Limonene occurs naturally in citrus fruits (hence the name), and linalool propionate is found in lavender.