After years of being just another seltzer brand, mostly in the Midwest, LaCroix is suddenly inescapable. It’s water, bubbles, and… something else, some sort of flavor. On the label, it says “natural flavor.” But what the heck is a “natural flavor,” anyway?
Flavor itself is something of a mystery. What we taste is an interaction between tongue and nose; often what we smell from something we eat, even if it’s a subtle one, can deeply influence the flavor we taste. Flavor is a complicated mix of volatile compounds; an orange has 95 compounds affecting its flavor, 55 of which are something we smell instead of taste. So creating a flavor of anything is far more complicated than just getting oil out of a bunch of fruits and dumping it in a seltzer vat.
That’s makes The Wall Street Journal’s attempt to discover LaCroix’s secret flavor just a wee bit quixotic. Not helping matters is that “natural flavor” is a legal term with a broad definition. Anything from the essential oils of a fruit to, in the past, beaver butt squeezings could, in theory, be a “natural flavor” under the law.
Add to this that flavor has a third dimension, the psychological. What we expect a food to taste like, and what it actually tastes like, are often very different things. Often, flavorings only include the dominant flavorants, not all the subtle notes. As a result, natural flavors tend to be a mix of a host of different flavor compounds from a wide variety of sources. Banana flavoring, aka isoamyl acetate, probably doesn’t come from bananas, and anything flavored orange? That comes from limonene, from, you guessed it, lemons. In fact, what you taste as orange in a food also gives lemony cleaning products that citrus smell.
All that said, the secret ingredient to LaCroix might well be something you’ve had before. Most flavors in your food come from a small group of food science companies, and “off-the-shelf” flavors are very common. Odds are pretty good that whatever flavor of LaCroix you like, you’ve probably had that flavor elsewhere.
And if you’re concerned about the mystery, remember this: Natural flavor is in almost every packaged product you buy, and at least in LaCroix, there’s just a small amount of it. You’ve likely eaten far more of anything LaCroix puts in the can if you’ve eaten fruit candy or really any packaged food. So drink with confidence, even if the mystery of just what you’re drinking lingers.