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Why LaCroix calls its seltzer ‘natural’

The company that makes it is facing a class-action lawsuit, but the problem is much bigger than one beverage.

(Brittany Greeson/The Washington Post)

A recent class-action lawsuit against LaCroix claims that the sparkling-water company has misled consumers by calling its products “natural.” From a certain perspective, it’s a slam-dunk case: Flavored sparkling water does not gush directly from Mother Nature’s teat, and aluminum does not spontaneously form convenient gleaming cylinders so we may drink refrigerated cans of “naturally essenced” LaCroix, popping them open with fingers designed by evolution for precisely that task.

Of course, this is not what LaCroix means by “natural.” Rather, its label — and the plaintiff’s attraction to it — can be understood only in light of our tendency to conflate “natural” with “goodness.” It’s no coincidence that the word “innocent” also features prominently in LaCroix’s marketing materials and packaging. “Natural” invokes a religious myth, an origin story about pure beginnings. With giant islands of garbage floating in the seas, microplastics polluting the oceans and human-caused climate change ravaging the globe, it makes sense to be suspicious of human tampering.

Wanton disregard for the natural world affects our health and well-being. Seeking out natural products is about health, yes, but holistic health: physical and spiritual, personal and planetary. Nature becomes a secular stand-in for God, and the word “natural” a synonym for “holy.” “The last stage of a butterfly’s metamorphosis is to fly those beautiful wings,” said Nick Caporella, CEO of LaCroix’s parent company, National Beverage Corp., invoking a poetic and almost metaphysical metaphor. “We are in sync with that all-natural butterfly.”

This religious regard for nature, then, is not about the undespoiled planet but about our quest for a purer life. Understanding human activity as incompatible with “natural” could easily set us on a misanthropic slippery slope to banning “natural” from virtually all food labels. After all, agriculture and food preparation are human arts — “art” being the root of “artificial,” as in LaCroix’s statement that “there are no sugars or artificial ingredients contained in, nor added to, these extracted flavors.” Most consumers agree with LaCroix that a reasonable definition of what’s natural should allow for a variety of processing techniques. (“Techne,” it’s worth recalling, is Greek for “art.”)

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It’s clear that only a little reflection on the meaning of “natural” leads to deep philosophical riddles, which is why the federal government has failed for decades to come up with any kind of enforceable guidelines around the term. This failure makes it difficult to litigate claims, which end up hinging on what a typical consumer would expect the term to mean and, thus, whether they were deceived. “The biggest question still, the one that is dividing courts, is what counts as natural,” said Rebecca Tushnet, a Harvard law professor who specializes in false advertising. “It is genuinely hard to figure out what people expect the word to mean, and it’s genuinely hard to create a definition.”

Even if there were a legal definition, the case against National Beverage probably wouldn’t succeed. According to the filing, the plaintiff desired “a healthy, natural beverage” and purchased LaCroix on the basis of advertising and packaging claims that it was “innocent,” “naturally essenced,” “all natural” and “always 100% natural.” These claims are false, alleges Beaumont Costales, the law firm that filed the suit, because testing revealed the presence of synthetic chemicals, including limonene (“which can cause kidney toxicity and tumors”), linalool propionate (“which is used to treat cancer”) and plain old linalool (“which is used in cockroach insecticide”). Yet all three of these chemicals exist in plants such as lavender and citrus fruits and enjoy widespread use as flavors and fragrances. Whether extracted from plants or synthesized from petrochemicals, there’s no evidence that they pose any danger. Neither the explicit accusation of using synthetic chemicals nor the implied health risks of those chemicals holds water.

Yet focusing on the relative naturalness and safety of LaCroix’s essences distracts from a much more pressing problem. When “natural” means “holy,” shopping for natural products becomes consecrated consumption. Stores such as Whole Foods (which settled two class-action lawsuits in 2016 over labeling its bread “all natural”) have exploited this impulse by weaving together the appeal to natural goodness with explicit ethical claims about how their products benefit the environment and disadvantaged peoples. It’s a brilliant move. Many of us are wary of overconsumption — in fact, our consciousness of how it harms the planet and our bodies is part of what makes naturalness appealing. The appropriation of natural goodness by corporate brands allows us to expiate our guilt for participating in the system. As long as consumption is sacred, there’s no such thing as overconsumption. Shop to your heart’s content for natural products! Go ahead, America, buy $827 million worth of LaCroix in a year! Knock back 10 a day! No need to worry: It’s all natural and made from “locally sourced ” water. Just what nature intended.

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In the end, worrying about what’s natural may obscure real threats to our health and the planet. America’s greatest disparities in lifespan are not due to departures from nature’s intentions; they are due to social determinants of health such as race and class . Vaccine refusal is rooted in the belief that “unnatural” medicine is inferior to natural immunity. The carbon footprint of the growing global demand for meat might be mitigated by lab-grown meat, which is anything but natural. As for the environmental impact of individuals, the poorest countries and the poorest people are by far the least responsible for our conundrum, not because they engage in consecrated consumption but because they consume less. This is easy to forget in a culture that thinks the best way to save Mother Nature is by consuming things that have her name on the label.

Buying “natural” is the modern equivalent of buying indulgences — deep down, we probably know that holiness can’t be purchased, but the opportunity is just too tempting to pass up. In this sense, both LaCroix and the people who buy it because it’s “natural” are guilty of reinforcing the false faith of consecrated consumption and the false idol of nature to which it is dedicated. Instead of confusing “natural” with innocence and goodness, we should think hard about who stands to benefit from the ritual practices that result.

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