What You Need To Know About Citric Acid

lemon

Citric acid is one of the most common food additives in use today.  You may think it is a harmless derivative of lemons, and that used to be so.  Today’s citric acid is a whole different story.  Here’s what you need to know about this pervasive ingredient.

Among the peculiar names that you will find on ingredient lists at the grocery store is citric acid.  It’s a flavoring, a preservative and is used to preserve the texture of some foods.  Of all the unpronounceable names you are likely to find on processed food ingredient lists, citric acid may seem the most reasonable, as it invokes the image of a real thing—citric acid deriving from, well, a citrus fruit.  So, what’s the big deal?

What is Citric Acid?

Citric acid is an organic acid that is a component of all aerobic living organismsmost abundantly, and not surprisingly, in citrus fruit.  This weak acid has been used as an additive in processed foods for more than 100 years as a preservative, a sour flavoring, or an emulsifying agent.  Because of its effective preservative properties, citric acid can be found in most canned and jarred foods to prevent botulism.

Known from the eighth century, but first isolated in 1784 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele from lemon juice, industrial scale citric acid production began in the late nineteenth centurymade from Italian lemons. World War I interrupted this cycle and an American food chemist, James Currie, discovered a process for making citric acid from mold in 1917. Pfizer started to produce citric acid from molds in 1919.

When life gives you lemons, ask for black mold instead

Industrial food ingenuity has made it so that citric acid can be created from Aspergillus niger—the common black mold found in houses which, in abundance, poses health risks to humans from spore inhalation.  Although citric acid can be obtained from lemon or pineapple juice, producing citric acid from A. niger is a far less expensive process.

Don’t forget to feed the black mold

Black mold is able to efficiently (and cheaply) convert sugars into citric acid. By feeding sucrose or glucoseoften derived from corn starchto the black mold, a citric acid solution is created. Corn is highly likely to be genetically modified (GMO).

The resulting solution is filtered out from mold, and the citric acid is precipitated from the solution and processed into the final, useable form using  lime and sulfuric acid.

Foods that citric acid is most commonly added to

Ice cream and sorbets

Caramel

Sodas, cider, beer and wine

Certain cheeses

Many canned and jarred foods (preserves, canned fruits/veg, sauces, etc.)

Baked goods and cake mixes

Frozen fish (particularly herring, shrimp and crab)

Many processed sweets

Pre-cut and packaged fruits and vegetables

Baby food (read our article on baby food here)

Health concerns

Citric acid is considered to be a harmless additive by food regulating agencies all over the world.  However, public concern has arisen from its erosive effects on tooth enamel.

A small percentage of the population is allergic to citric acid, though the allergy may actually be to trace amounts of corn or black mold that may remain after processing.

There are also questions about what part citric acid plays in acid reflux in infants who eat jarred baby food, much of which is preserved with citric acid.  People who have peptic ulcers or other GI sensitivities may experience irritation from citric acid.

Bottom line

Citric acid used to be made from fruit.  Now it’s more commonly made from feeding sugars to black mold and processed using sulfuric acid. Citric acid is in just about all processed foods. It’s also often found in kitchen cleaners, and does a great job removing mineral deposits from chrome.

Processed without citric acid

You can find some processed foods that don’t include citric acid.

Single ingredient processed foods

When was the last time you saw a processed food label with just one ingredient? Obviously, it can be done.

Read our Sustainable Kitchen Guide to learn how to buy healthy, humane and sustainable food.

Learn more

Chemical-Free Kids: How to Safeguard Your Child’s Diet and Environment

Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen

Death by Supermarket: The Fattening, Dumbing Down, and Poisoning of America

Fake Foods: Fried, Fast, and Processed: The Incredibly Disgusting Story


Find out how to reprint this article in your newsletter, on your website or print publication

Looking for our disclosure in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”? You’ll find it on our Terms Of Use page

10 Responses to "What You Need To Know About Citric Acid"

  1. Joe Stauffacher  23 Dec at 12:26

    Thanks for the post. I’ve been wondering about citric acid for quite sometime. I hope more people read your post and question the quality of the citric acid.

  2. Carrole Phillips Broker, Realtor Emertius  05 Feb at 11:05

    Thank you so much. So good to know…. I’m checking my pantry …. Carrole Phillips

  3. subtitulo  23 Feb at 05:26

    Citric acid is also very common in shampoos etc and I’m wondering when they say its vegetable derived, if its “produced” in a safe way then?

  4. Brydie  23 Apr at 15:36

    I’m wondering if this is all citric acid preserves or just some, and I’m curios about the black mould….of course it sounds terrible, but isn’t it only bad to inhale it? Not that I would ever want to consume it but aren’t there types of mould that are good for…like penicillin? My sister drinks citric acid as a lemon substitute as it’s cheaper!

    • Tolly Canon  27 Apr at 12:09

      Yes, Byrdie, some moulds can save your life, like penicillin. However, I don’t think you want penicillin added to just about every food on the grocery store shelf, right? Your comment about your sister says a lot about the prevailing attitude towards food: cheaper is better, even if that means FAKE. Eating cardboard with fake food-flavor is probably cheaper than eating real food, but why would anyone do that? It’s filling. It’s cheap. But it’s not food. If you are willing to put FAKE in your body to save a few cents, don’t be surprised by how much you will have to spend later…in medical bills, sickness and loss of vitality. If you can’t afford a lemon for your drink, then for heavens sake, just drink water. Why would you want to drink water with FAKE lemon flavouring?

  5. Paula  27 Apr at 07:40

    I have very painful tummy episodes where the pain goes to my back in spasms. My husband (an ex research chemist) discovered I have an in tolerance to citric acid. If I avoid it no problem but it is in everything nowadays even sauces, fish cakes, pies and cakes etc. I worry that a lot of people are already suffering who like I are unaware of why and what of the future with this additive in such widespread use without warning?.

    • Tolly Canon  27 Apr at 12:01

      Wow, Paula…I’m so sorry to hear you were suffering. But what a relief that you were able to find the cause. Most people have no idea why they suffer, and doctors often have less of a clue. I wonder just how many people are intolerant of modern citric acid? We’ll probably never know because things like that are so under diagnosed. Yes, these modern industrial additives are in just about everything, but the good news is that there are more options than ever to buy delicious foods that don’t include them. That’s why we have so many interviews on this site…we talk to all kinds of people who are creating foods that are clean. Seek out clean foods and if you can’t find them yet, you can still find your joy in the kitchen.

  6. Cindy  09 May at 11:14

    Thanks for the post. I have a lot of allergies and corn is one of them. I am wondering if because I am feeding my allergy everyday (citric acid is in the dairy digestive I use) if it’s possible that is why I seem to be allergic to almost everything I eat? Cream of Tarter has citric acid in it, what substitute can I use now for making my baking powder?

    • Tolly Canon  11 May at 10:14

      Cindy, you can use baking soda and either molasses or lemon juice (molasses for sweets like baking cookies, lemon for baked goods that complement lemon flavors). You can also use vinegar instead of lemon juice. I don’t know the exact ratios, but you can probably find that online. This is a good citric acid alternative that has no GMO (if you buy organic or Non-GMO Project certified) and no corn. Let us know if you find something that works for you. Good luck!

  7. Joe  29 Jun at 01:30

    When orange juice is labeled with “contains citric acid” does it mean it contains naturally occurring citric acid or is additional citric acid from black mold added?

Comments are closed.