I had my first LaCroix right after grad school, when I desperately needed the fizzy satisfaction of a soda but was avoiding soda in an effort to lose the stress-induced, cheeseburger-fueled weight I’d gained over the last few years. My roommate brought home a case of the grapefruit—ahem, Pamplemousse—flavor, which judging by the look of the pink-orange-teal-purple cans, seemed like something Richard Simmons would have chugged after Jazzercise class.
The internet was going crazy for this stuff and soon, so were we. It quickly took up more space in our fridge than actual food and filled our recycling bins to the top, even after we crushed them one by one. At some point, I started to wonder: What’s actually in this stuff? And why is it so incredibly addicting?
Part of the problem is that there’s actually no way to know for sure what gives this very subtly flavored drink its ambiguous “essence.” Look at a LaCroix can and you’ll see it has no artificial sweeteners, no calories, no sodium, no nothing. The only two ingredients are carbonated water and natural flavor, which means almost nothing. Carbonated water is water with CO2 in it. Sure, it creates a little carbonic acid in the drink, which some folks have said could harm your teeth, but so long as you’re healthy your saliva easily neutralizes those acids. It’s the second ingredient—natural flavor—that holds the key to LaCroix’s allure.
According to the FDA, natural flavor can be anything that adds flavor to a product so long as it comes directly from a plant or animal source. That’s a pretty wide range, but it’s further muddled by the fact that natural flavors can be made up of more than one ingredient—including artificial ingredients that help preserve the flavor or help it mix well with the other ingredients. “You see ‘natural flavor’ on a label and it’s really a black box of secrecy in terms of what’s being added to that product,” says David Andrews, a chemist from the Environmental Working Group.
Just like their artificial counterparts, natural flavors are complex chemical formulas invented by food companies and a small handful of flavor houses around the world. The FDA lets companies call these formulas natural even if they have synthetic solvents or preservatives because it classifies those filler ingredients as “incidental additives,” which usually come in trace amounts and get a pass from ingredient disclosure laws.
Before you start panic-counting the gallons of LaCroix you’ve consumed in the last two days alone, know that National Beverage, the obscure Florida-based company that owns LaCroix, claims that it doesn’t add anything artificial to its flavors. Instead, they use “natural essence oils … extracted from the named fruit used in each of our LaCroix flavors,” a company spokeswoman said in an email.
Which makes sense, because LaCroix doesn’t taste sweet. It doesn’t really taste like anything, actually—its appeal is in its bubbly, trustworthy blandness. The simplicity of its parts is what’s made LaCroix the darling of the internet, where health-conscious food bloggers and Instagrammers have formed an army of free advertising for National Beverage—even if some of that advertising gets a little weird at times.
Still, “there is no legal requirement to disclose what’s in the natural flavor,” says Andrews. So customers have no choice but to believe companies when they say they don’t use artificial additives in their flavors. The biggest comfort is that natural flavors are typically used in really low concentrations, says Andrews, so even if they do contain artificial ingredients, it’s unlikely that there’d be enough of anything to cause you any real harm. Also, just because a particular ingredient is classified as artificial doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something to inherently fear—it just means it was made in a lab. In fact, some naturally-derived flavors are considered artificial simply because they’re used in a way that you wouldn’t expect, like if someone used natural strawberry flavor to give a little extra oomph to a blueberry muffin.
More to the point, though, is that added flavors of any kind are meticulously designed in labs and guarded from competitors because they’re what keep customers coming back. It’s LaCroix’s endless and unique flavors that separate it from other brands like Perrier or Dasani. “The use of these flavors is to make foods more desirable,” says Andrews. “They want you to purchase more of these products at the end of the day.” Incidental additives or not, it’s the precision science of flavor that keeps you crushing down those ugly cans of gas-infused water.