Popular Science's La Croix Coverage: Chemistry Goes Flat

By Josh Bloom — Oct 04, 2018
If you are concerned that we aren't wasting enough time in court with stupid lawsuits fear not. There's another one in the works about the label of what is little more than fizzy water with a little flavoring. The case was written up by Popular Science, but to a chemist, Unpopular Science would be more accurate.
Original Image: beaumontcostales.com

The silly distinction between the terms "natural" and "synthetic" has come to a head because of the even sillier lawsuit against the Natural Beverage Corporation over the wording of the label of its LaCroix sparkling water. Silly or not, the Beaumont Costales law firm was happy enough to file a suit which (no, I am not kidding) claims that LaCroix's use of the term "natural" on the bottle is inaccurate since “testing reveals that LaCroix contains a number of artificial ingredients..."

Nonsense. Testing reveals nothing of the sort; it cannot (1), but Beaumont Costales doesn't really care. Just for yuks, here is a screenshot of their website.

But I'm thinking that it might be nice if they changed it a bit:

Given that this is a science issue one might think that Popular Science would get it right. But that's not exactly true. Author Neel V. Patel does a good job of giving us the essence of the story, but much of his focus is on whether the ingredients that the lawyers are quibbling over are safe or not. In doing so Patel, probably inadvertently, perpetuates the myth that there is any real meaning to the terms "natural" and "synthetic." There may be some meaning in the courtroom, but not in a science class.  The real issue - whether the entire premise of the suit is false - can only be answered by chemistry, and it is here where Patel and Popular Science come up a bit short. Here's why.

"the three chemicals listed—limonene, linalool, and linalool propionate ...—don’t exactly qualify as synthetic"

Yes, they do - if they are made from other chemicals via one or more chemical reactions, they are synthetic. This is known as organic synthesis - the transformation of one chemical into another. If they are obtained by extraction from plants then they are considered to be "natural." (FYI, this extraction requires the use of solvents, so it could be argued that naturally occurring chemicals are actually synthetic by the time you get them in the bottle). 

Regarding limonene (one of the chemicals cited in the lawsuit):

  • “There is inadequate evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of d-limonene.”
  • There is some evidence of male rats experiencing renal problems, including tumors, as a consequence of limonene exposure, "
  • [but] none of those findings... have been properly reproduced in humans.

This may be true, but It doesn't matter. Whatever harm arises from synthetic d-limonene will be identical to the d-limonene obtained from lemon peels. 

  • "more recent studies suggest limonene is actually antagonistic to cancer"

This doesn't matter either. Whatever benefit arises from d-limonene will be identical to the d-limonene obtained from lemon peels. 

Regarding linalool, (also in the lawsuit):

  • "It’s “naturally occurring,” found within many different types of flowers and spice plants, including mints, scented herbs, laurels, and cinnamon."

Or you can buy it from a chemical supplier. And there is no difference between the two. 

Linalool for sale! Photo: Sigma-Aldrich


  • "It is most definitely used in insecticides as well—that part is true. But that doesn’t mean it’s poisonous to humans." 

It most certainly is poisonous to humans - at a high enough dose. But neither that nor the intentionally scary word "insecticide" mean anything, except, perhaps, to a jury - something that Beaumont Costales is counting on. Once again, whether the linalool was purchased from Sigma-Aldrich, the largest supplier of research chemicals or "squeezed" from spice plants, it's still the same stuff. 

  • And, coincidentally, it may also be another anticancer ingredient!

Don't take that bet. The study cited involved 16 SCID mice which were implanted with human colon cancer (2) and then treated with linalool. A 55% reduction in tumor size was seen the mice that got the highest dose. If this sounds impressive it's because you've never done oncology research. The SCID mouse model of human cancer is simply awful. You could probably use Jello and it would reduce tumors. If SCID mice tests were relevant, human cancer would have been cured thousands of times. 


So, what is the basis of this worthless lawsuit? It just happens to be, yet again, pathetically bad science from the FDA - something I recently wrote about (See FDA Food Additive Ban Is Unscientific And Irrational). These dudes seriously need a course in chemistry.

Patel nails this:

So if all of these substances are found naturally, why is Beaumont Costales claiming they’re synthetic? That might have to do with the FDA’s own documents. The agency’s Title 21 lists both limonene and linalool under “synthetic flavoring substances”... and lists linalyl proprionate under “synthetic flavoring substances and adjuvants” safe according to certain conditions. This is most likely the crux of the plaintiff’s case.

Yes, that is exactly what is going on. Mind-boggling FDA policies, which are based entirely on incorrect science, have struck twice in one month. The result? This idiotic lawsuit and a decision to ban 7 flavors as food additives, but only the ones that are made synthetically. 

The concept that it is the chemical structure, not the source, that determines the properties of a given substance is not that difficult, yet the FDA can't or won't get it right. And the results are dumb policies, dumb lawsuits, and dumb people. 

There is no reason why the FDA can not fix these fundamental errors. I could do it in my sleep. It's that easy. So, what the hell is going on at the agency that makes policies about our foods and drugs? We deserve an answer.


(1) To any standard analytical instrument, such as NMR, mass spec, gas or liquid chromatography, plant-derived limonene would be identical to limonene made in a chem lab.

(2) SCID stands for severe combined immunodeficiency. SCID mice are bred to have no immune system. This permits scientists to implant tumor cells into the back of the mouse and not be rejected by a functioning immune system. The SCID mouse model is pretty awful, but there is no better alternative. 


Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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