A legal complaint filed Oct. 1 against National Beverage Corp., parent company of popular LaCroix sparkling water, alleges the product contains non-natural and synthetic compounds, including ethyl butanoate, limonene, linalool and linalool propionate. The suit claims that linalool is used as a cockroach insecticide.
The class-action suit was filed by Beaumont Costales, a Chicago law firm, on behalf of plaintiff Lenora Rice. "Thousands of consumers purchase Defendant's water under the mistaken belief that it conforms with the representations made by Defendant on LaCroix's packaging and advertisements, i.e., it is 'all natural' and/or '100% natural,'" the lawsuit claims.
National Beverage denied all allegations in the complaint and said in a statement the flavors in LaCroix come from natural essence oils derived from fruit. The company said the lawsuit is "false, defamatory and intended to damage" the company and its shareholders. "National Beverage will vigorously seek actual and punitive damages among other remedies from everyone involved in the publication of these defamatory falsehoods," the statement said.
National Beverage is the latest company to be hit with a lawsuit over supposedly non-natural ingredients. The complaint states the company's sparkling water products contain ingredients identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as synthetic. "These chemicals include limonene, which can cause kidney toxicity and tumors; linalool propionate, which is used to treat cancer; and linalool, which is used in cockroach insecticide," the lawsuit alleges.
Such allegations about synthetic ingredients aren't uncommon and have been popping up in a number of lawsuits against major food companies. Bai Brands was the target of a class-action lawsuit filed this past spring claiming its use of a synthetic form of malic acid means the product should be labeled as "artificially flavored," according to Food Navigator. The ingredient is used as a flavor enhancer or flavoring agent to add tartness and has been deemed generally recognized as safe by the FDA.
Claims about synthetic ingredients are often accompanied by allegations that a product cannot legally be labeled as "natural" if it contains anything that doesn't come directly from nature. Monster Beverage recently settled a class-action complaint alleging some of its products had "natural" label claims but contained synthetic or artificial ingredients and/or added colors. PepsiCo's Frito-Lay division and Kellogg were recently sued for false advertising by a California couple claiming that label claims on Pringles and Lay's Salt and Vinegar chips led them to believe the products are "all natural" snacks rather than ones containing artificial flavors.
The definition of "natural" has been a difficult issue for a long time, although the FDA is trying to get a handle on it. In March, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency was continuing to work on the definition in order to give consumers sufficient guidance — possibly via an icon or symbol on product packaging.
Sometimes the sued companies settle a complaint — as Monster Beverage did — and/or they decide to quit using the "natural" label claim. That's what General Mills recently said it would do with its Nature Valley granola bars following a 2016 complaint filed by three consumer groups claiming the bars contained trace amounts of glyphosate.
It remains to be seen how far this LaCroix lawsuit will get since National Beverage is adamant it has no merit, plus the ingredients the complaint names can be derived from natural sources. The company's statement said all flavor essences in LaCroix products are certified by suppliers to be 100% natural, so the dispute may come down to whether that is accurate and if testing of the ingredients can be relied upon.
Meanwhile, it may be tough for LaCroix fans to know whether they should be worried. The company's sparkling water sales are second only to Nestle’s Perrier and S.Pellegrino, but the formula is relatively easy to copy, and competitors such as Spindrift and PepsiCo's bubly could start closing in. National Beverage's stock fell nearly 10% last week, and if the controversy continues too long, it could boost LaCroix's many competitors in the sparkling water category and begin to depress sales at National Beverage.
Unless the FDA comes up with a clarified definition of "natural" that's easily understood by companies and consumers alike, food and beverage makers looking to avoid lawsuits might decide to take the term off all product labels. The challenge is that "natural" products are being sought out by consumers, so removing such a term from the label could mean fewer sales.