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7 November 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:50am

So long, Diet Coke: How LaCroix conquered America’s fizzy drinks market

 The rise of the flavoured sparkling water has been aided by increasing health-consciousness across the US.

By Sophie McBain

I discovered LaCroix, the flavoured sparkling water of choice for hipsters and Instagram influencers, soon after I moved to New York in late 2016. These days I drink so much of the stuff that my one-year-old calls it “mummy water”. Unlike most flavoured water it’s not sweet at all, and it comes in 21 faintly fruity flavours, of which pamplemousse is indisputably the best. Until about a month ago, I pronounced “LaCroix” in the French style, which seemed to fit the brand’s apparent European pretensions. In fact, the drink originated in the Midwest and is pronounced “la croy”, and, linguistically, many of its flavours are a mess (take cerise limón or múre pepino).

The brand has a cult following in the US. It has inspired a New York Times letter of recommendation and dozens of “definitive” flavour rankings, a T-shirt range called “LaCroixs Over Boys”,  and a sold-out San Francisco exhibition featuring nine paintings of LaCroix cans and billed as “Warhol’s soup cans for millennials”.

My favourite LaCroix spin-offs are the music videos. There’s “LaCroix Boi”, which features the Chicago MC Big Dipper dressed in a coat made of LaCroix cans and luxuriating on a LaCroix throne, while trilling lyrics such as “I’ll be your LaCroix boi/Crack me open and drink me down/Drown in these pamplemousse lips”. Or there’s the devotional song “Sippin’ on LaCroix”, in which a YouTuber called Rakeem wears eyebrows cut out from cans and repeats, “When you’re sippin’ on LaCroix, you know it brings you joy.”

The National Beverage Corporation, which owns LaCroix, does not publish sales figures for the drink but said that it made revenues of more than $1bn between July 2017 and July 2018. The rise of LaCroix has been aided by increasing health-consciousness across the US, where sales of traditional fizzy drinks are falling. The product may have benefited most from the decline of Diet Coke, sales of which have gone down every year since 2006.

Once “the beverage of the power generation that emerged across the Clinton years”, Diet Coke has become “the elixir of soft-bodied plutocrats desperate to shed their shady pasts and, possibly, a few pounds”, a recent New Yorker essay observed. Donald Trump reportedly drinks 12 cans of Diet Coke a day. Harvey Weinstein is a big Diet Coke fan. Aspartame just doesn’t taste as sweet as it used to. 

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Nowadays, young professionals in want of a fashionable, fat-free beverage reach for LaCroix. It contains no caffeine, no sugar, no salt, no artificial sweeteners and no calories. It describes itself as “naturally essenced”. So, what exactly does it contain?

In October, the law firm Beaumont Costales launched a class-action lawsuit against the National Beverage Corporation, stating that its description of the sparkling water as “all-natural” is false. “Testing reveals that LaCroix contains a number of artificial ingredients, including linalool, which is used as cockroach insecticide,” Beaumont Costales said in a statement. The National Beverage Corporation denied all the allegations, replying that the “natural flavours in LaCroix are derived from the natural essence oils from the named fruit used in each of the flavours” and underlining that no sugars or artificial ingredients are added to those flavours.

The website Popular Science argued that the lawsuit “seemed a stretch” and was a “product of alarmist, chemophobic ideas about food”. Linalool can indeed be used as an insecticide but it is naturally found in mint, other scented herbs and cinnamon and is not poisonous to humans. The distinction between natural and artificial ingredients is also ambiguous. The lawsuit might eventually reveal what a prescient Wall Street Journal reporter described in 2017 as the “mystery behind a billion-dollar brand”: what is “essence” and how does LaCroix make it? When the reporter asked LaCroix spokesman Rod Liddle (presumably not a moonlighting Spectator columnist) to define essence, Liddle wrote back that “Essence is – FEELING and Sensory Effects!”

A few days after news of the lawsuit broke, a man stopped me in the street while I was “sippin’ on LaCroix” and warned me it could be a health hazard. When I told him that I was aware of the lawsuit but was unconcerned, he seemed relieved. Maybe he had a fridge full of it at home. All fizzy drink sales eventually fall flat, but LaCroix’s bubble doesn’t seem to be bursting just yet.

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This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state