Why A TikTok Recipe For 'Spa Water' Inflamed Controversy

This summer has seen a steady trickle of controversial food and drink-oriented trends on TikTok. Some have been benign, if polarizing, food combinations, including an unusual pairing that was spotlighted by PopSugar. (Watermelon topped with yellow mustard, anyone?) Others have raised doubts and questions about health and safety, like when viewers lost it over a  TikTok post about eating canned chicken because it had been jarred by the video creator two years earlier. 

Who could forget the seltzer water and balsamic concoction termed "healthy Coke," which earned a rebuke from the American Dental Association over concerns it could erode tooth enamel (via Healthline)? And then, of course, there's the saga over Chef Pii's viral TikTok pink sauce, a homemade condiment whose color and ingredients seem to be changing in real time – a problem, especially considering that the product was sold online without FDA clearance.

Unlike these incidents, the dustup over a "spa" drink recipe shared on Tiktok concerns an entirely different issue – one that has persisted on the platform and sown division among some of its most popular creators.

Creator behind 'spa water' accused of cultural appropriation

Dictionary.com defines cultural appropriation as "the adoption, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers from subcultures or minority communities into mainstream culture by people with a relatively privileged status." It's been an issue on Tiktok before. As NBR reported last year, to protest the uncredited theft of their work and preferential treatment of white users on the platform, Black creators went on strike and refused to publish new content.

According to Today, wellness influencer Gracie Norton courted controversy and allegations of cultural appropriation on June 24 when she shared a recipe for "spa water" to her half-million followers, a drink made with water, cucumber, and sugar. The problem? As one Tiktok user commented, "They are now gentrifying agua frescas." While the term "gentrification" is generally used in reference to privileged people displacing members of a poorer community (via PBS), here it was a kind of a metaphor for how Norton had effectively claimed as her own a Mexican drink that has been around since the Aztecs. Other commenters pounced as well.

For her part, Norton deleted her videos and followed up with an apology on her Instagram Stories: "Recently I filmed a spa water series, which I titled incorrectly," she wrote. "The proper name for this drink is agua fresca, and the origin belongs to the Latin community."