The LaCroix brand of fizzy water came seemingly out of nowhere in the last few years, propelling its parent company to nearly $1 billion in annual sales and tripling its profits to $149.8 million since 2015.
So perhaps it’s natural that the brand would attract hassles, the way noisy parties attract complaints from the neighbors, followed by a knock on the door from the cops. In this world, there’s no gain without pain.
National Beverage Corp., the owner of LaCroix, got a knock on the door from the Securities and Exchange Commission in June, asking about some of its sales metrics. But a more interesting challenge came on Oct. 1 from a Chicago law firm alleging in a lawsuit that the brand’s claim to be “all natural” is bogus — that in fact its flavored seltzers are chock full of “chemical compounds that have been adjudged synthetic and/or artificial by the Food and Drug Administration.” One ingredient, linalool, is “used as a cockroach insecticide,” the lawsuit says.
This is a horror for consumers, the lawsuit implies, since so many have been guzzling down LaCroix water with the misconception that it’s as pure as, well, nature. The plaintiff lawyers are seeking class-action certification.
Here’s what the lawsuit really tells us: One, you can get the clerks at a courthouse — in this case, Cook County Circuit Court in Illinois — to swallow anything and accept it as a legitimate claim. Two, you can scare the public into shunning a product with utterly bogus but scientific-sounding allegations (or at least try to). And three, that Americans’ love for anything marketed as “natural” makes them vulnerable to fact-free marketing pitches.
Indeed, LaCroix has been around for some 30 years, but has caught fire in recent years, thanks in part to an adept social marketing campaign and a craze for “natural,” unsweetened fizz. Are its flavored seltzers “healthy”? Who’s to say? But pitching them as “100% natural” makes them sound healthy, which is the point.
Like practitioners of judo, the lawyers—they’re from the Chicago firm Beaumont Costales, which apparently specializes in class-action claims—are trying to use LaCroix’s strengths as a weapon against the brand. It’s marketed as “natural,” so its vulnerability lies in questioning its purity.
But all three of the ingredients mentioned in the lawsuit—linalool, limonene, and linalyl proprionate—can be extracted from natural sources. Limonene can be extracted from citrus peels and is thought to have potential anti-tumor effects. Linalool is present in more than 200 species of plants, and is commonly used as a scent and spice. Linalyl proprionate (identified in the lawsuit as “linalool proprionate”) comes from kumquats and has been tested as a possible inhibitor of prostate cancer.
None is known to be dangerous to humans with normal use. “The safety of these three ingredients has been tested,” in some cases as recently as 2014, Roger Clemens, an expert in nutrition and food safety at USC, told me. And while it’s true that linalool is used as a pesticide, the fact that it’s toxic to cockroaches doesn’t mean it’s harmful to humans.
National Beverage denied the lawsuit’s allegations in a press release. “Natural flavors in LaCroix are derived from the natural essence oils from the named fruit used in each of the flavors,” the company said. “There are no sugars or artificial ingredients contained in, nor added to, those extracted flavors.” The law firm didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit’s approach, especially its allusion to linalool as a pesticide, resembles that of food activists who exploit the industrial uses of common food ingredients to imply the ingredients aren’t safe to eat. Perhaps the best known such “crusader” is Vani Hari, who markets herself as the “Food Babe” and gins up public concerns about chemicals in the food chain.
As we’ve reported in the past, much of her work more resembles pseudoscience than science. “Avoid ingredients you can't pronounce or that you've never heard of," she has counseled her followers, as if individual ignorance is a healthcare rule to live by. She tortures the origin and chemicals deemed safe to make them sound disgusting or dangerous -- "I couldn't believe there was beaver's ass in my vanilla ice cream, coal tar in my mac and cheese, yoga mat and shoe rubber in my bread," she wrote in her 2015 book “The Food Babe Way,” distorting each of these perfectly safe compounds beyond recognition or reality.
Hari’s model—like the underlying claims in the LaCroix lawsuit—involves exploiting a popular suspicion of complexity, of things and phenomena that can only be understood or explained by experts. The same phenomenon animates concerns about vaccines, genetically modified organisms in food, cellphones and even Wi-Fi.
As Clemens observes, “even when substances occur naturally that doesn’t mean they’re safe.” It’s not uncommon for “natural” substances to be safe, or even essential, in moderate doses and harmful in excess. Clemens points to potassium: “We need it in our diet to regulate fluid balance, but too much can cause heart arrhythmia.”
As for the assertion that the FDA has judged the LaCroix ingredients to be “synthetic,” the agency’s treatment of the terms “natural” and “synthetic” have been notoriously loose. It doesn’t even have an official definition of “natural.” In its latest action on “synthetic” ingredients, a ban on seven food additives issued Oct. 5, had such little urgency it gave manufacturers 24 months to comply.
As for the lawsuit, at this point it’s indistinguishable from a nuisance filing. The complaint doesn’t offer any evidence that LaCroix has synthesized any of its ingredients illegally or included anything not listed on its seltzer cans. But the filing may have had the effect of taking down National Beverage’s share price by 9% to $100.48 as of midday Tuesday.