Natural flavors in sparkling water are a little ambiguous. When you take that first sip of a flavored sparkling water like LaCroix, you might find yourself wondering, “what is this stuff even made of?” Sure, it tastes vaguely like fruit, but it certainly doesn’t quite taste like fresh squeezed juice.
We know that for the most part, it’s just carbonated water, sourced naturally or artificially produced. But what are the “natural flavors” in sparkling water — and where do these flavors come from?
The majority of popular sparkling water brands flavor their beverages using natural flavors. And while sparkling water brands like LaCroix, Bubly and Waterloo have been reluctant to reveal exactly how they manufacture their natural flavors, we can glean a little insight from the United States Food and Drug Administration.
What Are Natural Flavors in Sparkling Water Made of?
According to the FDA, natural flavors in sparkling water can be created using natural ingredients from essential oils, extracts, distillates or other products derived from fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, barks, roots, and other organic substances. Essentially, a natural flavor is one that is derived from a plant or animal. What’s more, their main function in food is flavoring, not nutritional.
So if you are drinking a fruit flavored sparkling water, it’s likely that the flavor of that fruit was extracted from the fruit itself. However, it’s also possible that the beverage contains other natural flavors that you might not expect – perhaps from a different fruit, spice, or vegetable.
Unexpectedly, natural flavors can also contain artificial ingredients like stabilizers to help preserve flavor or improve its ability to mix with other ingredients. These are usually used in very low quantities and are generally viewed as harmless.
How Natural Flavors Are Labelled on Sparkling Water
The exact ingredients in natural flavors are typically not listed on the bottle or can. Manufacturers are not required to do so in the United States, unless the ingredients contain a common allergen such as milk, eggs, shellfish or peanuts.
When there is only one natural flavor used, the FDA requires the product to be labeled as such. For example, a beverage may be labelled “natural lemon flavor” or “natural grapefruit flavor” if that is the only ingredient used to flavor it.
However, such revealing labels are uncommon in the world of sparkling water. For that reason, we can safely assume that most brands are using combinations of ingredients, instead of single sources. For example, that lime sparkling water may also contain ingredients derived from lemons or other citrus fruit.
How LaCroix and Other Popular Brands Are Flavored
While LaCroix makes its flavoring process sound straightforward, it’s actually fairly vague when you consider how it might be achieved.
“The flavors are derived from the natural essence oils extracted from the named fruit used in each of our LaCroix flavors. There are no sugars or artificial ingredients contained in, nor added to, these extracted flavors,” says LaCroix’s website.
While it’s clear that the process begins with fruit, the exact method of extracting essence oils is ambiguous. Likely, heat and/or solvents are used to extract the particular chemical ingredients that are combined to make up the flavor. It’s also possible that LaCroix utilizes enzymes to extract flavor compounds from fruit — an increasingly common practice in natural flavor production.
Polar Seltzer offers similar ambiguity when describing the source of its flavors: “We source the highest grade of flavor essences that are extracted from original food sources such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.” No mention is made of how the raw ingredients are turned into the essences used to flavor the beverage.
Waterloo, also holds its cards close to the chest: “Oils, extracts, or essences from the named fruit (or fruits) on each variety are paired with complementary flavors to build our unique, bold taste profile.”
Bubly doesn’t publicly offer an explanation of its flavoring process, but it’s likely quite similar to those listed above.
Natural vs. Artificial Flavors in Carbonated Water
There is much confusion surrounding the terms ‘natural flavor’ and ‘artificial flavor’. People are quick to assume that natural is good and artificial is bad. However, this is not necessarily the case.
Is Natural Flavor Healthier Than Artificial Flavor?
Natural flavors are not inherently better for you than artificial flavors. There is no nutritional difference between the two, and there is no need to worry about potential health impacts from artificial flavors.
Natural substances tend to contain a huge variety of chemical compounds — many of which are flavorful. Note that chemicals in food are not “bad.” All food is made of chemicals.
Interestingly, artificial flavors contain fewer chemicals than natural ones. This is because the target chemical compounds have been specifically isolated, so there are no additional ones. These synthesized chemicals are the same ones often found naturally in food, but chemists can manufacture them individually. Note that artificial sweeteners are not the same thing as artificial flavors.
Can You Be Allergic to Natural or Artificial Flavors?
You can be allergic to natural flavors that are added to manufactured food. A natural flavor could be derived from a variety of major food allergens, including milk, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and more. However, manufacturers are required by the FDA to denote on labels when food contains them. Be sure to read labels closely if you have a common allergy.
You can also be allergic to artificial flavors or colors in food, and these types of allergies can be much more difficult to pin down. Symptoms may include worsening of asthmatic symptoms, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. If you experience these symptoms after eating something, seek medical attention.
Are These Flavors Vegan or Vegetarian?
While not all natural flavors are vegetarian or vegan, those in flavored sparkling water most often are. Flavored sparkling water is most often made to taste like fruit, flowers, or vegetables. There would be little reason to add an animal product to these types of beverages, and the majority of manufacturers describe their products as vegan and vegetarian.
There are cases where animal products could potentially be used in sparkling water. For example, one natural substance used to enhance the flavor of vanilla, strawberry, or raspberry is a chemical called castoreum. This chemical is collected from the anal glands of beavers! While it’s safe to consume, it’s clearly not vegan.
However, it’s highly unlikely that castoreum has made its way into your favorite sparkling water. Very little of it is produced annually, and sparkling water brands have much incentive to appeal to the broadest range of consumers possible — including vegans and vegetarians.
As funny as it may sound, artificial flavoring is probably a better bet for vegans and vegetarians, since you know it was synthesized in a laboratory.
Flavor of Minerals in Sparkling Water
When it comes to labelling food, minerals are not considered natural or artificial flavors. In fact, you’re unlikely to find minerals listed in the ingredients on a bottle of sparkling mineral water. The minerals are considered a property of the water itself.
But minerals in sparkling water impact taste more than you might think. Naturally carbonated sparkling water brands like Topo Chico, Perrier, and Gerolsteiner owe their unique flavor profiles to their subterranean sources.
You may find that natural brands of sparkling water have complex flavors. You might describe them as salty, acidic (carbonic acid), smooth (likely alkaline), or even tasting like granite/rock. Just as tap water from different locations has different mineral content that impacts flavor, so does bottles sparkling mineral water.
Manufactured sparkling water like LaCroix, Bubly, or Waterloo may contain small amounts of added minerals to improve flavor. But these brands tend to focus on naturally flavored sparkling water, which is typically fruit flavored. For that reason, they likely don’t add much to the beverages in terms of minerals.
Naturally Flavored Sparkling Water Brands
While not comprehensive, we’ve compiled a list of sparkling water brands that are produced using only natural flavor. Note that brands containing real fruit juice, like Spindrift, are excluded on a technicality. Fruit juice is not considered a natural flavor since it contributes to the food’s nutritional value.
Some of these brands even rank on our list of most flavorful sparkling waters.
- Polar Seltzer
- Topo Chico
- Liquid Death
- S. Pellegrino Essenza