You may have recently come across some headlines mentioning a controversy surrounding LaCroix—the popular brand of sparkling water—and its use of the flavoring agent linalool.
A Chicago-based law firm has filed a class-action lawsuit against the makers of LaCroix for falsely labeling their ingredients as natural when, “in fact contains ingredients that have been identified by the Food and Drug Administration as synthetic.” The lawsuit specifically notes that LaCroix includes an ingredient called linalool, referring to it as “a chemical used in cockroach insecticide.”
So, what exactly is linalool? And is it safe?
What the Science Says
Linalool is a compound that is naturally occurring, found in the essential oils of many flowers and spice plants. It has a safe history of use and has been deemed by both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) as safe for use in food and beverages.
Linalool is used in a variety of applications, including food, beverages, personal care, household products and, yes, insecticides. But compounds like linalool (and other flavor additives) are often used in many types of applications. Take lavender, for instance. Lavender is used in cosmetics, it’s used in household products, and it’s used to flavor foods…but that doesn’t mean that lavender is unsafe. These compounds all go through rigorous safety regulations and approval processes. In the U.S., where this lawsuit was filed, no flavorant can be used without approval by the FDA, and they follow very strict safety protocols.
There are different grades, of course, based on product use, but they are all safe for their intended use.
Limonene, another flavorant, is another good example. It’s a naturally-occurring oil with a citrus scent and it is used in various food products, but it’s also used in candles because mosquitos happen to not like those smells. So just because certain compounds are used in multiple applications doesn’t make them unsafe—it just makes them versatile.
Food Ingredients Can Have Multiple Applications
When you think about it, insects—cockroaches and mosquitos included—are organisms…just like humans. And just like humans, they are going to be attracted to (and repelled by) certain tastes and smells. So it is not altogether surprising to see flavor additives in products designed to repel specific insects. It’s just smart science!
Over the past several years, we have seen the convergence of using flavors and fragrances crossing from food to cosmetics, and the other way around. Lavender used to be primarily used in cosmetics, but it is now sometimes found in desserts. Meanwhile, things like basil and orange and cardamom are flavors that have made their way into cosmetics and perfumes. For every application, these compounds have to be FDA-reviewed and approved for their intended use. None of these applications are inherently dangerous, and so they should not be taken out context and presented as such.
So, What is the Controversy Really All About?
Headlines aside, the root of this lawsuit is whether or not the linalool found in LaCroix comes from natural or artificial sources. When compounds are extracted from actual plants, they are natural. When they are synthesized in laboratory setting, they are synthetic and labeled “artificial.” LaCroix is stating that they purchased them from a flavor house that derived the additive from the natural plant, so if that is indeed the case, the claims of false labeling appear to have no base in fact. If LaCroix has, however, been using synthetically-derived linalool, then LaCroix needs to update its labeling list.
Either way, the science says that LaCroix (linalool and all!) is perfectly safe to drink.
The bigger issue here is how we—as a scientific community committed to providing safe, nutritious, and sustainable food—can help consumers better understand the food they eat. It all starts with each of us sharing our knowledge and helping others understand the facts behind the food and beverages they consume, so please feel free to share this post.