We're hooked on flavored sparkling water.... But what are we really drinking?
Let's be real: sometimes we reach for sparkling water to make everyday life feel just a little bit swankier. We also do it for our health. For those of us who struggle with drinking enough water, it's refreshing bubbles and flavors are an enjoyable incentive to hydrate. And since sweetened beverages, like traditional sodas, contribute to chronic conditions like diabetes (1), sparkling water offers a satisfying CDC-recommended substitute for sugary drinks (2). Sparkling water is basically H2O with jazz hands, so there's no way it can be bad, right? As it turns out, there are a few things to watch out for. We're diving deep with sparkling water to help support your health and environment (and your bubble habit).
Let's Talk About Natural and Artificial Flavors...
You've probably seen common ingredients like fruit juice, natural flavors, or artificial flavors in your favorite fizzy water brands. Fruit juice is pretty self-explanatory, but what do we know about the rest?
Natural flavors. According to the FDA, a natural flavor must come from non-synthetic source, such as spices, fruits or vegetables (3). However, the rest of the solution carrying the flavor may still contain synthetic additives as preservatives or solvents (which just means substances used to dissolve other things). These additives like propylene glycol are considered "Generally Recognized as Safe" by the FDA, and some like ethyl formate form naturally in plants (5). But safety studies are ongoing for some of these approved chemicals. For example, recent research has shown methyl paraben acts as an endocrine disruptor in mice and contributes to obesity (6). Organic products have higher standards for natural flavors – the National Organic Program only allows natural flavors if "not produced using synthetic solvents and carrier systems or any artificial preservatives" (7). Organic flavors must be used in organic products if commercially available (7) and comply with USDA organic regulations – including that 95% of the flavor must be certified organic (8).
Artificial flavors. Yep, you guessed it – unlike natural flavors, artificial flavors need not derive directly from natural sources like those listed above (3). Instead they are chemically synthesized. This doesn't actually mean that the main flavor's chemical structure differs from that of the natural flavor. As University of Minnesota food science professor Gary Reineccius explains, "there is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings…the distinction in flavorings comes from the source of these identical chemicals" (9). But the kicker again comes from the additional synthetic chemicals allowed to accompany the flavor. Some of these originally occur in nature (such as butyl phenylacetate, found in fruits), while others are totally synthetic and potentially problematic (like phenylethyl benzoate, which is "toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects.")
Bonus round: what is "naturally essenced"? This is its own category used in particular by LaCroix products. Its true meaning is still unknown, as LaCroix has not disclosed this information publicly. What we do know, according to their website, is that "all LaCroix flavors are derived from the natural essence oils extracted from the named fruit...there are no sugars or artificial ingredients." Furthermore, Business Insider clarifies that "essence is created by heating items such as fruit and vegetable skins, rinds, and remnants at high temperatures, producing vapors. These vapors are condensed and then sold by the barrel."
Bottom line: though natural and artificial flavors are chemically similar, they both come with long lists of potential additives that may be detrimental to our health and environment . When in doubt, stick with what you know is good – like real fruit juice – or opt for brands with organic ingredients and flavors.
How to Sparkle from the Inside Out
Sparkling water containers matter just as much for our health and environment as the inside ingredients. The lining of aluminium cans contain BPA and similar chemicals that are known endocrine disruptors with the potential to cause hormonal and reproductive harm. While these chemicals are less likely to leach into beverages like sparkling water than more acidic beverages, we don't like to make a habit of drinking from cans. Sparkling water beverages also often come in plastic. Microplastics can also end up with your bubbles – a study in 2018 showed that microplastics contaminated 93% of plastic water bottles (10). The research world is still seeking to understand the health implications of microplastics, but given what we already know, we say it's better to play it safe and avoid plastic bottles as much as possible in the meantime. Reducing plastic use is even more important for environmental health now that international governments have stopped buying recycling products from the US (cities in the US are throwing away formerly recyclable types of plastic because they can't afford to recycle, as reported by The Atlantic). Your choice of carbonated beverage is that much better for our health and environment when it doesn't come with plastic!
Simple Solutions for Keeping Your Sparkle Alive
1) Choose glass over plastic containers if buying carbonated beverages from the store
2) Check out the ingredients of your current brands and *gasp* consider trying a new one (we know you're dying for a new pandemic adventure). Try brands with fruit juice flavoring (Iike Spindrift) or organic natural flavors to be extra safe in avoiding sneaky synthetic additives.
3) Consider DIY! You can easily make your own sparkling water at home and have total control over what goes in it, including water quality and flavor choice. SodaStream's Aqua Fizz water carbonating machine uses glass bottles. Or if you're on a budget, consider a more basic model and transfer your newly carbonated water over to glass carafes for storage, or just quickly consume it (not a problem for us!). They also have organic flavoring options and a carbon dioxide cylinder exchange program to reduce waste. You could also experiment with adding your own fruit juice flavor concoctions – the possibilities are endless.
Stay fizzy, my friends.