UltimateSEO.org has backlinks from about a thousand domains. In a recent review of these I found an odd reoccurring link from multiple domains but all with the same content and titles. I was introduced with “The Globe” which charges sites to NOT list them or makes money from SEOs paying them to not backlink to them. At $36 a link they’re likely insane and I bet its bringing in some money. But before we go all crazy and start paying Ransomlinks (if its not a word I claim it … Ransomlinks are backlinks from bad sites meant to lower your SEO score unless you pay to not be linked too.)
In reviewing the situation I ran across a list of the most disavowed sites. I figured Id share that with you below, but before I do what outcome did I choose for these bad links pointed to my site?
Option 1 Pay: Heck No! Then the terrorists win.
Disavow: No! Don’t use disavow unless Google has placed a manual action against your site. I’m skeptical anyhow of the tools purpose and Google itself says there is no need to use the tool unless you’ve been penalized and told by them you are being penalized.
Do Nothing: Yes! Don’t do anything. Google likely knows about the Ransomlinks scheme and has already penalized the site by deindexing it. There are so many random domains its going to be a mess to address so let it be unless you have a seen a negative affect. In other words…before you saw your leg off wondering if that spot is cancer…stop and find out.
An idea: 301 Redirect Them…seriously…all of these links point to a subdomain that until now hasn’t existed. Most others who are talking about this site note a similar subdomain targeted. I could create the targeted subdomain and redirect all links to it from my site back to theirs. 🙂
I’m opting for the third as I dont have any indication that Google cares about these Ransomlinks. They may actually bring some random traffic of use so redirecting them would take that from my site.
There are actually a couple lists of tools on this page. Check them out and come back for more in the future. What you wont find in this list is a tool that has asked or paid or communicated with me concerning the list. This is an honest collection of what I want to keep links too. If you want to be on the list feel free to maybe comment? If I find it useful and use it I’ll add a link. Otherwise maybe someone else will like it from your comment link and they can make there own list. 🙂
Over 50 SEO Tools, Mostly Free
As I go through my SEO day I type the same addresses over and over to get to a collection of useful tools. So I decide to post them as links once and for all, for my own benefit but also for others who may come here for a backlink indexer but find there isn’t one … but there is a list that includes one of the best.
A quick highlight of some of the tools and how I plan to build on this simple list. First, I’ll address the second thing I noted…I plan to build the list out from its initial 52 to hopefully a hundred with the promise I’m not just adding crap tools or duplicate tools over and over. Now as a highlight of some of the best tools on this list I’ll put some details in the coming weeks in a section below the list. There is also another mini list that includes tools for text and html below the main list.
So I feel like its everyone’s dream to be a media conglomerate, why buy one newspaper when you can buy 100s? Well, SEO and the internet are one big community…so in the analogy … why build multiple newspapers in the same city? No one would do that and it’s about the same with the internet or at least it should be…but everyone wants to have multiple top ranking domains.
Real Life Examples Of Multiple Domains
There is only two ways this could work out…
Your brand is merging with another equally powerful and recognized brand and dissolving either brand will leave a huge gap that competitors will fill fast than you can with your one brand. Example … Zillow bought Trulia for 3.5 billion they represent the number one and number two home listings sites. They have continued to operate two sites in the same niche because anything other than what they have now is less than optimal. SO … you can do the same when your billion dollar company buys out your #2 competition for 4 billion or so dollars. Until then…this first scenario doesn’t work for you.
Your brand is buying a vertical business…(word for it escapes just now but its not the point so moving on) Let’s say you make eyeglasses, you make almost all of the eyeglasses. So you buy the stores that sell them and then you buy the vision insurance company too. Thats what I mean…Your original business was production and you dealt with retail outlets, you couldn’t make hardly any more glasses so you expanded vertically in the supply chain. Its the story of that famous eye glass company you know that owns all the others… Luxottica. Never heard of them well…they did a “Multi-Domain” strategy and you have heard of these companies… EyeMed, Target Optical, Pearle Vision, Lens-crafters, Sunglass Hut, Glasses.com … theres more but you get the point. A consumer believe they have choice in the market but thats because you let them. Combined all these companies are 1/4 of all eyewear value in all the little pieces of that industry. They command it. Your new domain JimmysBestTshirtsThatRFunny.info is not them you need one domain…so buying 8 other T-shirt domains wont help you other than maybe you got a better name than that monster. Now the key part of this strategy though is vertical integration…your retail store isn’t competing with your vision insurance company and its not competing with the factory … they’re all buyers of each other till a consumer gets it.
Increased Competition But Not Sales
Thats really about it. You’re likely going to have room to grow in the sector you are in for sometime and you wont have the funds to buy up a fourth of the world’s T-shirt makers so focus on your one domain. Why? Well…changing the names to protect the guilty. I had a client who insisted on multiple domains we’ll say they were a tour company that ran guided tours of Liberty Island in NYC. Its a weird niche just cause you don’t have to have a guided tour to see the Island but because of the demand and popularity several companies sprout up and sale tickets to a national park property. Its easy money with online sales being where its at … but if you have 5 competitors sites you figure well lets add two more so now there are 7 sites and your competition adds 2 sites thats 15 now plus your 3 …. so we now have 18 sites all competing for the same audience and the same experience. Did you know that it’s really hard to rank up to the top 3 spots with one site? So now to benefit from what you’ve done you need to rank up 3 times that and fight off 15 instead of 5 other sites. We didn’t even have a second page until now in search results and someone has to be on it.
When Multiple Domains Don’t Work
So thing about your multiple domains, assign keywords to one … then move to the next domain … don’t assign the same keywords and the same role to that site, you’re just competing with yourself. Also you’re diluting your search traffic maybe combined you have 30% of the traffic but Google doesn’t see that, it sees 15% here and 10% at this second domain and only 5% at the last site. Say a competitor has a site thats at 16% his one site will out rank your three because you’ve split up all your efforts and resources. Thats the problem with the Multi Domain Strategy.
When Might You Use Multiple Domains?
I like to think I don’t do that. I have UltimateSEO.org and its SEO. I have CLoud502.com and it is cloud computing and I have data502.com and its Data Analysis. Related? Of course but very different. A person googling “AWS servers” isn’t going to click on a site about SEO. You find niches for the domains and target the audience and keywords for those domains.
So in the end, before you grow to more than one domain ask yourself if this new domain will have a different audience than the first. If not and if you can argue the same keywords fit both sites, you need one site.
So don’t eat yourself up with Multiple Domains. I’ll be posting in the next day about my addition of UltimateSEO.net .. how I intend NOT to canabalize this site.
Domain Authority is in my opinion the single greatest indicator of a sites ability to compete organically for search traffic. It is a great question and its simply complex. Keep in mind Domain Authority or DA as we shall refer to it pretty much here on is the single best number to predict ranking ability and we know that the top 3 positions consume over half of all searches so it can be directly attached to traffic.
A few disclaimers: Domain Authority is not a Google creation it is from Moz.com and it is their educated guess at how Google see’s your authority. But it is not Google’s so remember that. Secondly I am going to go over this in a higher level and use some half truths for simplicity. If you want the whole truth just read the articles or Google the topics discussed for greater detail. Finally, most of what I will show you are other people’s guesses as to what goes into Moz’s Domain Authority which again is a guess about Google’s metric on a site. Google doesn’t tell us exactly and they shouldn’t, Moz doesn’t tell us either because they want you to pay for it. Moz isn’t the only one guessing, a lot of folks guess and some include Majestic’s Citation Factor and Trust Factor. SEOProfiler has it’s LIS. For simplicity and since I’m the one running this show we’ll focus for now on Domain Authority by Moz.
Now it’s a simple number from 1 to 100 but it isn’t like a ladder with even steps, as you climb the steps get bigger and it takes more to gain a level. So from DA 1 lets say you gain 5 backlinks and two are from sites that have a decent DA 40 and Moz bumps your score up to a DA 3. If you gain 5 more links to your site and they also have similar metrics as the last bunch you might assume you’re set to have a DA 6, but you get surprised when it is reported as a 4. Another set of 5 and it stays a 4. DA levels are harder to improve the higher you get your site.
What Determines Domain Authority?
Domain authority is the best metric because it provides us with a single number but its based on some rather key and diverse factors. Yes, it is backlinks but its so much more than that…but it is largely backlinks or incoming links from other domains. These serve as citations, they’re references from other entities that acknowledge publicly that this site they are link too, yours is authoritative. Coupled with “anchor text” or the words that make up a link that aren’t the address they can define a site. More on that towards the end. This is anchor text it has a link but the anchor text serves as the vanity description of the content at the other end of the link. The link comes from another site to yours and depending upon that site’s authority the link is more or less powerful than another.
We’ll talk in greater depth about SEO Backlinks but for now let’s just understand that backlinks are votes from other sites. Not all backlinks are created equal. The more backlinks the more authority, and one vote per site. So 800 links from another site you own are not worth 25 from 25 sites.
In the graphic to the left links are the blue AND red slices of the pie and together they make up 49%. The next biggest element is SOCIAL MEDIA MENTIONS. I do that in all caps because I’ve always included social media as an element of reports I offer in client proposals and I get told often they don’t care about all that. I just sit back and scribble down that they don’t know what they don’t know yet.
Social Media Mentions
Sure you need an account and you need followers but to get those followers you need to post regularly. Five or Six times randomly during the year isn’t regular. Thats why so many people feel social media doesn’t matter because they were unable to tap into the great interest on Facebook in their widgets. News flash no one is really going to be interested in your widget but you and a handful of individuals. Thats why your messages need to have more than just “buy our widget.” If you are a church for instance a weekly devotional or prayer list is better than telling people to come on Sunday week after week. The biggest mistake is not including a link to your site in your post. While there may be a link off of your profile page to your site your message can be repeated by others and each repeat or share is from their profile. It may mention you and likely link back to your profile but that is still one link to your site. Include a link.
Domain Age Matters And It Should
So you’re going out there and you found a domain name thats available and you want to outrank your competition in a month. SEOs laugh out loud around the globe…Highly unlikely, it’s partly you lack street cred. I’d love to rank number one in the keyword Louisville SEO but I don’t. I’m the 89.8th result. MatthewLeffler.com is 352 days old as I am writing this. The top result for Louisville SEO is 9 years and 207 days old. Indirectly they’ve got 9 years worth of content, returning traffic and backlinks than I have and so they are given a bonus for that longevity. Partly to prevent searchers from getting a completely different result every time a new domain picks a keyword. Its easier though as you age, the difference between 5 yrs and 9 years is trivial and the distance between 1 day and 1 year is a stretch. Sometimes buying an existing domain thats relevant to your business will give you a way around this, but you’re at the mercy of what is for sale and like a foster kid you don’t know about it’s past.
Brand Search Volume
Sometimes in SEO it feels like you’re swimming with Joan Crawford. This one I feel is a bit much … brand search volume is how often people are looking for you. Well isn’t that impossible until they know about me and the reason they don’t know about me is because you have me on page 4? Couldn’t brand search volume arguably be covered in social media mentions and backlinks? We’ll now that we got those out of the way, nobody ever said life was fair, Tina.
I’ve decided that I’ll figure out a way to sneak a reference to a favorite movie of mine into every post from here on.
But I digress, so your brand search volume does make sense to be included because people searching for Coca Cola do not want to see Pepsi. I’m from deep Coke territory and even Taco Bell has stopped asking if I want a Pepsi. So has Google it appears.
Incidentally I would suspect that local plays into this heavily. Google knows where the searches are coming from so they understand the foot print of your business. Which is why Googling the best landscaper in town is different in each town. Food for thought if you build a regional powerhouse and expand into a new city.
Domain Authority Case Study – Project No Wire Hangers
Sorry I wont make this all about that movie but we all know …. NO Wire Hangers. For our purposes hangers are domains and they can be wire or wooden. Depending on the hanger or domain your attempts to rank for a keyword will be affected, like the clothes you hang on them. I’ll show you several domains stats that I have built completely alone over several months. It hasn’t been a dedicated effort so these numbers could have been better but the effort has been the same. Some are older than others some are the same age. We’ll dissect these domains and metrics extensively.
Matt’s Project Hangers
29 / 100
27 / 100
28 / 100
24 / 100
23 / 100
19 / 100
23 / 100
23 / 100
22 / 100
21 / 100
20 / 100
16 / 100
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19 / 100
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11 / 100
14 / 100
10 / 100
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16 / 100
8 / 100
6 / 100
Feel free to look into them and make some assumptions. You may find tools that I have discussed previously useful in “auditing” the domains. Much like a Sciencetologist audits a person with toys and wild claims so does your SEO and look we have just about as many acronyms. Now go and let your Thetan figure out where the keywords were in the graph. Spoiler … anchor text that you had no control over … officially. Here is a further reading on the power of anchor text…in 2004 “Miserable Failure” was George W. Bush’s Whitehouse biography page and no one optimized it for that.
Web Site SEO Visualizations I’m a visual person as I believe most of us are which is why I am fascinated by these images of sites that I have visualized. Green dots are working pages, blue dots are redirects and orange dots are pages that don’t exist or are forbidden. The connecting lines represent link structure of a site. The larger a dot the more traffic it receives.
FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Car parts maker ZF Friedrichshafen said on Friday it acquired a 35 percent stake in ASAP, a Germany-based maker of software and testing systems for autonomous driving applications and electric vehicles.
ASAP specializes in car-to-x communication, human-machine interfaces and electronic architecture and last year generated sales of 84 million euros. It employs 1,100 staff.
ZF’s Chief Executive Officer Wolf-Henning Scheider recently said ZF will invest about 12 billion euros in electromobility and autonomous driving over the next five years.
A purchase price for the ASAP stake was not disclosed.
Reporting by Arno Schuetze, editing by Riham Alkousaa
In the midterm elections for the House and Senate, Democrats are very likely to win the majority of votes, but they face structural barriers to winning the majority of seats. In the House, for instance, we project that Democrats would need to win the popular vote by somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 to 7 percentage points1 to be favored to actually take control of the chamber, a result of partisan gerrymandering after the 2010 election and Democratic voters’ tendency to cluster in dense, urban districts. And, of course, Congress isn’t the Democrats’ only problem: In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes but lost the Electoral College.
In gubernatorial races, however, there’s no gerrymandering or Electoral College to worry about. So in some ways, they’ll make for the purest test of whether there really is going to be a “blue wave” this year.
And in FiveThirtyEight’s gubernatorial forecasts, which we (finally!) launched on Wednesday, the gubernatorial news is good for Democrats. They are projected to wind up with governorships in states representing about 60 percent of the U.S. population, compared with 40 percent for Republicans.
True, Democrats will have a hard time winning the majority of states, because the GOP is projected to do well in small states such as Wyoming. But the number of states is a stupid metric: Being the governor of Texas is a hell of a lot more important than being the governor of Vermont. Higher-population states, because they have more seats in the House, will also be more important in the redistricting process that will take place after the 2020 elections, when governors elected this year will still be in office.2
So as our measure of gubernatorial success, we’ll simply be counting up the number of people projected to be under each party’s control. Texas will count 44 times as much as Vermont, because there are 44 times more people there.
Democrats begin with an edge in the population count. Although each party controls seven states from among the 14 governorships that are not up for election this year, the states the Democrats hold are more populous. Specifically, Democrats have about 42 million people under their control — based on the states’ projected populations as of Election Day3 — while the seven Republican states have 26 million people.
In states not on the ballot, Democrats start with a lead
Population in states where governors are not up for re-election
Democrats are poised to add to that advantage on Nov. 6, however. Among the nine states with populations of 10 million or more that will elect new governors next month, Democrats are clear favorites in five (California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan) and modest favorites in a sixth state (Florida). Republicans are clear favorites only in Texas, where incumbent Greg Abbott is likely to be re-elected. The Ohio and Georgia races are toss-ups.
Democrats are well-positioned in high-population gubernatorial races
Race rating according to FiveThirtyEight’s “Classic” forecast as of Oct. 17
Republicans will make up ground in small and medium-sized states. Indeed, they’re the favorites (specifically, about 2 in 3 favorites, according to our Classic forecast4) to win a majority of states. But Democrats are highly likely — although by no means certain5 — to govern a majority of the population after the election. Even if Republicans win all the toss-up races and all the races our model currently rates as leaning Democratic, they’d come up a little short of a population majority given the states that Democrats have in hand already. Accounting for each state’s population on a probabilistic basis,6 Democrats currently project to have 194 million people under their control after the election, or about 60 percent of the population, compared with 135 million for Republicans.
Methodology-wise, our gubernatorial forecasts are largely the same as our House and Senate forecasts. There are three versions of our model — Lite, Classic and Deluxe — that blend together different forecasting techniques in different ratios. Specifically, these techniques include
A polling average, after polls are adjusted in various ways.
CANTOR, a system that makes projections based on analysis of polling in similar states.
“Fundamentals,” a regression-based method that evaluates non-polling factors such as fundraising that predict election outcomes.
Expert ratings, such as those put together by the Cook Political Report.
In all versions of our forecast, however, polling is by far the largest ingredient in states where there’s a lot of polling. For more detail on our gubernatorial forecasts, including how they differ from our congressional forecasts, see here.
Perhaps the most important difference between gubernatorial races and congressional ones is that partisanship is much less of a factor in governorships. Specifically, it’s only about one-third as important — so, for example, a state that’s typically 15 percentage points more Republican than the country overall in congressional races would only be about 5 points GOP-leaning in gubernatorial races. As a consequence of this, incumbents tend to be favored even when they come from “opposite-colored” states. Republicans Larry Hogan of Maryland and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts are heavy favorites to win re-election despite being in deeply blue states, for example — not just according to the polls, which have them well ahead, but also according to the fundamentals component of our forecast.
On the flip side, few things are truly inevitable in gubernatorial races, especially in states without incumbents. Democrats are competitive in Oklahoma, for example, while Republicans have a fighting chance in Connecticut, despite it being a blue state in a blue year.
How different versions of our governors forecast compare
As of Oct. 17
We’ll cover the most interesting gubernatorial races on an individual basis in subsequent updates, but here are a few comments about races that I know people will have questions about. Democrats Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia are striving to become the first African-American governors of their respective states and the first elected anywhere in the South since Douglas Wilder of Virginia in 1989. Gillum has had a small but fairly consistent lead in the polls, and our model gives him a 70 percent chance (about 7 in 10) of winning. Abrams is in a toss-up race that tilts ever-so-slightly toward her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp. The race is close enough that voter registration protocols in Georgia, which Kemp oversees as secretary of state, could make the difference. (Check out my colleague Perry Bacon Jr.’s article on these races for more detail.)
Although there generally isn’t a big conflict between polls and fundamentals in our gubernatorial forecasts, there are a couple of high-profile races where fundamentals nudge the forecast toward the GOP. In Wisconsin, incumbent Republican Scott Walker trails Democrat Tony Evers by 5 points in our polling average, but the fundamentals think he “should” narrowly win re-election. The Classic version of our model evaluates this race as leaning Democratic, but with Walker having a better chance than polls alone would suggest. And in Kansas, where the controversial Republican secretary of state, Kris Kobach, is running, polls show a true dead heat against Democrat Laura Kelly, but the model classifies the race as leaning Republican on the basis of the fundamentals.
With two outs and a man on base in the ninth inning Sunday, Alex Bregman grimaced after connecting on a Craig Kimbrel offering. He had just missed a game-tying homer, instead hitting a fly ball that fell into Andrew Benintendi’s glove on the warning track in front of the Green Monster for the final out. Game 2 of the American League Championship Series was over. The series was tied, and Fenway Park collectively breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Even Bregman’s outs are increasing the heart rates of the opposition this October. Bregman became one of the best players in baseball during the season, and he’s elevated his game even further this postseason. Though in a small sample of just five postseason games, the 24-year-old has a .417/.708/1.000 slash line fueled by 10 walks (against one strikeout). He’s reached base in 18 of his 24 plate appearances this October.
Bregman’s batting eye — along with opponents’ unwillingness to give him much to hit — is making some history. According to Major League Baseball research, Bregman is just the first player to draw 10 walks through five games of a postseason since Dodgers outfielder Jim Wynn did it in 1974. The only player before Bregman to draw at least three walks in back-to-back postseason games was Cubs outfielder Jimmy Sheckard — in 1910.
Bregman, a spoil of tanking for the Houston Astros as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, is getting something akin to the Barry Bonds treatment. Over his past three postseason games, the LSU product has drawn eight walks, matching Bonds in 2002 for the most by any hitter over a three-game span in postseason play.
Bregman entered play Tuesday having been thrown 103 pitches this postseason (20.6 per game). Of those pitches, only 40 have been in the strike zone. Only J.D. Martinez, Yasiel Puig, Gleyber Torres and Christian Yelich have seen a smaller share of pitches in the strike zone than Bregman has.1
Of the 63 pitches thrown to him outside the strike zone, Bregman has swung at just six, the lowest chase rate among any postseason batter to have seen 50 pitches. Consider his take on this full-count pitch Sunday night, in the charged Fenway environment against hard-throwing Red Sox reliever Ryan Brasier:
Bregman’s improved discipline is not just an October development: It’s what fueled his 2018 breakout.
Only Joey Votto and Andrew McCutchen chased pitches out of the strike zone less often this season than did Bregman, who swung on just 18.1 percent of those pitches. Mookie Betts and Aaron Hicks ranked fourth and fifth.
Bregman has improved his batting eye since reaching the majors in 2016. He dropped his out-of-zone swing rate by 5.8 percentage points from last season. Yasmani Grandal, Ian Happ and Gregory Polanco were the only players to make greater year-to-year improvements in laying off of balls out of the strike zone.
“He’s having quite a season because of the preparation he’s doing, the lessons he’s learning, and the application in the game has been unreal,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch told the Houston Chronicle in September.
Bregman embodies this teamwide trend. The infielder is not just more selective in terms of swinging at pitches in the zone; he’s also finding pitches he can pull and drive for power. In 2018, he recorded just the sixth season this century of at least 30 home runs and 50 doubles with fewer strikeouts than walks.
The Astros teach that a hitter should swing at a pitch only if he can conceivably drive it for an extra-base hit. Astros hitting coach Dave Hudgens told The New York Times last summer: “I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can hit a homer. I don’t want guys swinging at a pitch unless they can do damage. If you go in with that mindset, you’re not going to miss your pitch as often.”
Bregman has always hit more balls in the air than on the ground. He ranked fifth this season in total volume of line drives and fly balls with 334. But he also increased his pull rate, perhaps encouraged by the inviting proximity of the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park to the right-handed batter’s box. His quick hands and short arms allow for a short bat path. And by crowding the plate, he’s able to cover the entire zone and pull outside pitches. His 24 home runs hit to the pull side (left field for Bregman) tie for sixth in the majors. This is all before getting to other aspects of his game like his defense at third base, which has looked exemplary so far this postseason, giving the Astros two shortstop-quality defenders on the left side of the infield.
The Astros didn’t know they needed another superstar, but they have one in Bregman, who is challenging Mike Trout and Mookie Betts for status as the best player in the American League. As the Astros battle for a World Series berth, Bregman might be the best player in baseball when it matters most.
Two weeks ago, a hullabaloo broke out over a lawsuit alleging that canned seltzer from LaCroix contains an ingredient found in “cockroach insecticide.” Suddenly, the canned water with the cult-like following didn’t sound so appetizing. But there was never any bug killer in the seltzer. Instead, the incident highlights an uncomfortable truth: Food and beverage production is essentially chemistry. Any discomfort we feel about that fact isn’t based on science.
LaCroix has drawn fans with its claims to be “natural” and free of many things found in other sodas and bottled waters — sugar, calories, artificial sweeteners and artificial flavors. But a new lawsuit filed by the law firm Beaumont Costales contends that LaCroix includes “synthetic” ingredients, including limonene, which the lawsuit claims “can cause kidney toxicity and tumors,” as well as “linalool propionate, which is used to treat cancer; and linalool, which is used in cockroach insecticide.”
It sounds like scary stuff. But even if the chemicals are in the water, raising the alarm about them is a little bit like warning about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide — a substance that’s a major component of acid rain, that is known to corrode and oxidize metals and that can be fatal if inhaled. It is also better known by its common name, water.
Similarly, limonene, linalool propionate and linalool are common plant chemicals and far less nefarious than they might seem from the lawsuit’s description, said Gary Reineccius, a flavor chemist at the University of Minnesota. Linalool, for instance, is found in many fruits. “It’s a key to blueberry. If blueberry didn’t have it, it would taste totally different,” Reineccius said. It’s true that linalool is sometimes used in products that help control cockroaches, but implying that linalool is insecticide is like saying that citric acid (the thing that makes lemons tart) is a kind of paint remover simply because you found it on an ingredient list at your hardware store. Limonene is another naturally occurring plant compound (also found in some prized cannabis strains), and linalool propionate is found in ginger, as well as lavender and sage oils.
The lawsuit claims that these ingredients have been listed by the Food and Drug Administration as synthetic, but that’s misleading. It’s true that these three ingredients appear on FDA lists of synthetic flavorings, but that’s just because they can also be synthesized in a lab. When they’re made that way, the FDA calls them “artificial” flavoring, and when they are extracted from a plant or animal they’re considered “natural,” though the FDA does not verify that labels of food products are accurate. So what’s really at issue here is not what ingredients are in LaCroix but how these ingredients were produced. In response to our questions, LaCroix’s parent company, National Beverage Corp., pointed us to a press release that insists that “natural flavors in LaCroix are derived from the natural essence oils from the named fruit used in each of the flavors.”
“There’s really no difference” between chemicals synthesized in a lab and the same chemicals extracted from plants, Reineccius said. “From a scientific standpoint, they are exactly the same. There is no risk from one versus the other.” The major difference, he said, is that they cost a lot more to derive from plants than to make in the lab. “It’s exactly the same chemical, but you’re going to pay three to five times more for the natural one. The customer pays through the nose, it’s foolishness.”
Although the FDA defines what a “natural” flavor is, it doesn’t currently have any official definitions for what “natural” means when applied to a whole product. FDA press officer Deborah Kotz said the agency would expect the term “natural” to mean that nothing artificial or synthetic had been added. The FDA recently called for public comment on the use of term “natural” for describing food products, Kotz said, and the agency is currently reviewing these comments to determine whether and how to define “natural” products.
The lawsuit highlights the disjunction between the things a food or beverage producer might call “natural” flavor under the FDA’s rules and the common understanding of what “natural” means, said flavor historian Nadia Berenstein. “The idea of ‘natural’ is radically undefined,” she says, but from a cultural standpoint, the word tends to evoke a mystique of pureness or wholesomeness. She said the relative naturalness of various foods started to become important to consumers when food production became industrialized, which made it difficult for people to know what had happened to their food between the farm and the grocery store. Justifiably or not, the term “natural” may give consumers a reassuring sense of purity and a belief that the product is free from adulteration.
But the ingredients and techniques you use to whip up a pleasant “natural” product in your kitchen might not be well-suited for commercial production. If you’re at home and want to make a fizzy, fruity drink, you might squeeze a little grapefruit juice into some sparkling water. But a drink that’s being commercially sold has to do many things a homemade drink doesn’t. “It has to be relatively uniform, it has to be shelf stable, it has to conform to safety regulations,” Berenstein said. The squirt of juice might perk up a glass of seltzer at home, but when the beverage is produced on a industrial scale, the juice could be subject to issues like sedimentation and oxidation that make the end product less appealing.
And so food chemists use their tools to create products that taste good when they reach your table. When you read the phrase “natural flavor” on a label, you might assume that, say, a coconut beverage contains some extract of coconut, but in fact some coconut flavoring is actually derived from castor oil. “It makes a beautiful coconut flavor, and it’s perfectly safe and wholesome,” Reineccius said. “You can label it ‘all-natural,’ but it’s not from coconut.” To food chemists like Reineccius, that’s a shining example of science at work. Some companies are trying to boost their sales by closing the gap between what the word “natural” can legally cover and what their customers generally understand it to mean. A LaCroix competitor, Spindrift, aims to capture consumers turned off by flavors created in the lab, natural or not. The company’s sparkling waters are made with fruit and no other flavoring.
The great irony here is that, as food scientist Sarah Taber pointed out on Twitter, the whole reason that bug killers might contain things like linalool in the first place is because “makers realized people don’t want to spray ‘chemicals’ in their house to get rid of bugs, and preferred natural plant-based repellents.” Turns out, there’s no way around it: All the products we buy contain chemicals.
CORRECTION (Oct. 16, 2018, 5:55 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly said that some coconut flavoring is distilled from castor oil. It is derived from the fermentation of castor oil.
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