Whether you’re having trouble weaning off your favorite sugary soda or are struggling to drink enough water throughout the day, you might resort to sipping on crisp, fruity sparkling water. Available in flavors ranging from juicy peach to sour black cherry, these fizzy drinks make hydration feel less like a chore, all while boasting their two-ingredient, zero-calorie nutrition label.
But being sugar-free and colorless doesn’t mean these hip beverages are equally as healthy as straight H2O. Zero-calorie, flavored seltzers typically contain artificial sweeteners like aspartame — a common ingredient in diet soda — sucralose, erythritol, and acesulfame potassium, says nutritionist Kellyann Petrucci. There isn’t a definitive answer as to whether these additives are connected to weight gain, but some evidence has shown that it’s a possibility. When you eat sugar in chocolate or cookies, your brain will receive a signal when you’ve had enough and stop you from devouring more of the treat; however, when you consume drinks with artificial sweeteners, your body perceives the intense sweetness but doesn’t sense the same satiety as it does with real sugar, which may lead to overeating or develop long-term cravings for sweetness, Petrucci says.
Though these artificial sweeteners usually aren’t listed on the side of the can, one mystery ingredient is usually prominently displayed: “natural flavors.” Rather than juicing a fruit and infusing it into the beverage, food chemists create natural flavors by cooking it in a machine called a still to extract its flavor, resulting in a calorie-free, concentrated liquid that’s added to the water, Petrucci says. Single-flavored seltzers often include more than solely the extract from one fruit; a grapefruit sparkling water may also contain flavorings from other herbs, barks, leaves, buds, or citrus fruits to enhance the flavor and give it a sensation that’s reminiscent of the real fruit, says Taylor Wallace, a food scientist. As a rule of thumb, natural flavors must be derived from a plant or animal, meaning extracts from vegetables, spices, and even seafood are okay.
So why the secrecy with natural flavors? Using the term allows brands to keep their product labels short, sweet, and to the point, as a single natural flavor can include more than 100 ingredients, including flavoring substances, solvents, emulsifiers, and preservatives, according to the Environmental Working Group. Despite containing ingredients that are “naturalness” is up for debate, Wallace says natural flavors are safe to consume. If there are any preservatives and solvents in natural flavors, the amount is too small to be linked to any ill health effects, Wallace says. If you’re concerned about consuming artificial sweeteners or the ambiguity of natural flavors just doesn’t sit right with you, concoct your own flavored water at home by muddling herbs, fruit, and citrus peels and topping the mixture off with ice and bubble-free or sparkling water.