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 organisms—most 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 century—made 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, a common black mold. You’ve likely heard of how dangerous black mold is. There are several strains of Aspergillus that, if inhaled, can cause severe sickness or death. This particular strain of Aspergillus (niger) is not as lethal as others, however, in people who are weak or have impaired immune function, Aspergillus niger has been found to pose serious health risks 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 glucose—often derived from corn starch—to 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 the 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
Sodas, cider, beer and wine
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)
Citric Acid Made From Non-GMO Fruit
Yes, you can still buy citric acid made from non-gmo fruit. It’s also sometimes made from sugar cane.
Shop for citric acid made from sugar cane here.
When was the last time you bought processed food with only a single ingredient? Obviously it can be done. These are Pomi tomatoes. They add nothing to their tomatoes, and they package in a BPA-free box.
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.
Nonstick cookware is popular largely because cooking does not require the use of oils or fats, which purportedly creates healthier meals. The price for this benefit may be steep, however, as nonstick cookware has been linked to dangerous toxins.
In the US, there is no law that compels manufacturers to provide a complete ingredient label, making it difficult to distinguish between the ingredients and chemicals found in these seemingly ordinary products. Make your kitchen a chemical free zone by whipping up your own non-toxic, all natural kitchen cleaners with just four simple, inexpensive ingredients.
With so many different options, how do we really know that our earth friendly trash bags are helping the environment instead of just costing us more money? The key is in researching the materials used in making the trash bags, and understanding their environmental implications.
I’ve been pretty successful at finding convenient alternatives for just about everything. Except for one: how to replace plastic zip lock style food storage bags. What can I use instead of plastic food storage bags? I don’t want to have plastic in direct contact with my food, and plastic freezer and food storage bags aren’t reusable.
The Alternative Health Journal recently studied over 100 baby foods and found that many contain ingredients that are not necessary to a baby’s diet, let alone health. Results concluded that many commercial baby foods contain high quantities of sugar and trans fats; both ingredients that are not considered to be healthy for adults, much less babies. Even organic brands are not exempt from this, as one popular organic baby food brand was shown to contain high sodium levels.
While most of us know by now that processed foods often contain a host of unhealthy additives, from fake flavors and colors to chemical preservatives, what do we know about fresh produce?
Ractopamine is a drug administered to pigs, usually as a feed additive, to increase the amount of lean meat or fat (depending on dosage). It’s typically fed to pigs in the weeks just before slaughter.
Some people mistakenly believe that buying organic or sustainably raised chicken or poultry means they don’t have to worry about Salmonella. Following proper kitchen protocol when handling poultry can help you reduce the risk of food poisoning.
More from Ethical Foods on how to choose food
When you see the label All Natural on a package of processed food, it doesn’t mean much. Another day of supermarket sleuthing yields yet more… Read more
Some farmers who practice organic farming, and even those whose methods achieve a higher level of environmental and ethical cultivation, have decided against getting certified… Read more
Many avoid pork because of the lurid abuses endemic in conventional pig rearing. But, with a little research, conscientious carnivores can still delight in bacon… Read more
Caroline Gray is a New Orleans native and local food activist who wholeheartedly believes that “a better world can be delicious.” In under 2 years,… Read more
Though a culinary delicacy, many consider foie gras to be inhumane. Learn what it is and why it’s banned in many countries. The author explains… Read more
Despite the tradition of having a hot cup of eggnog at a Christmas party, or perhaps at the hearth of a roaring fire, this rich… Read more
Enthusiasts claim that raw milk is a nutritious food that even lactose intolerant people can enjoy. Read more
When it comes to meat labeling, nothing is as confusing as understanding the difference between Natural and Organic meat. Here’s what you need to know… Read more
The best fruit and veg is local, seasonal and organically grown…but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be sporting an organic label. Read more
You may think you know how much sugar you are eating, but if you buy ready made foods, even in so called health-food stores, you… Read more
While most of us know by now that processed foods often contain a host of unhealthy additives, from fake flavors and colors to chemical preservatives,… Read more
On New Year’s Day 2013, Certified Organic beer becomes more organic. Read how changes in labeling could affect your favorite brew. Read more
How to save money in the kitchen that you can use towards buying clean, sustainably produced foods. On our Ethical Foods on a Budget page we… Read more
Beyond nutritional content and animal welfare, you should also be aware of what happens to your eggs between the hen house and the marketplace. Read more
Do cage-free eggs make up for mono and diglycerides in your baked goods? Panettone is a Milanese specialty that’s enjoyed throughout Italy as a Christmas… Read more
What is ractopamine? Ractopamine is a beta-agonist, a class of agents acting in an opposite way to beta-blockers widely used in blood pressure medication. Ractopamine… Read more
Tolerant Foods Red Lentil or Black Bean Pasta Single ingredient pasta shapes made from either certified organic, non-GMO black bean or red lentil, which contains… Read more
Many exclude veal from their diet on principle. And vegetarians avoid meat altogether. Yet anyone consuming dairy products may still inadvertently be supporting the production… Read more
Here are some pros and cons of eating local and tips on how to include more local foods in season in your diet. Most supermarket… Read more
When holidays draw near, one thing that is at the root of most people’s thoughts is holiday dinner preparations for friends and family. Of course,… Read more
Buying organic, local and sustainably raised food can wreck your grocery budget. Joining a Community Supported Agriculture scheme can help keep costs down, while providing… Read more
Certified organic, free range, cage free. There are so many options when buying eggs, but what do they mean, other than a steep price premium?… Read more
A closer look at what’s in the jar The Alternative Health Journal recently studied over 100 baby foods and found that many contain ingredients that… Read more
Buying organic is a first step in ensuring the quality of your daily cuppa. But issues of ethics in this ancient trade are being addressed… Read more
If you’re not ready to eat insects whole, try baking with cricket flour Sustainable Food | Clean Eating | Alternative Protein A stroll down your… Read more
Author Eden Canon walks us through the confusing and sometimes contentious world of wine labels in search of a perfect glass of vino. Read more
When it comes to your health, the ethical treatment of farmers or the global impact of deforestation on climate change, how coffee is grown matters. Read more
Over the past 50 years the answer to a simple question—where does milk come from?—has changed. We look at where most milk comes from, and… Read more
It’s high summer in the northern hemisphere, and that means your local farmers market is in full swing, offering a cornucopia of ripe, fresh local… Read more
Although the United Kingdom has established some of the highest animal welfare standards in Europe, meat produced under far less humane conditions continues to flood… Read more
What’s with all these labels? Organic, free range, cage free—find out how to select the best chicken and why it matters. I’m looking for a… Read more
Are you debating whether local, responsibly produced food is worth the extra expense and effort? Here’s what farmers, producers and restauranteurs want you to know. Read more
The Environmental Working Group released a study and subsequent guide illustrating how the proteins we most commonly consume rank in environmental impact. Read more
Pet food has become a convenient market for waste from meat and grain producers which are deemed inedible to humans. But what are these ingredients? Read more
Known as “honey laundering,” one of the most pervasive international food scandals of our time is centered on illegal honey trading. Chinese honey tainted with… Read more
People pay a premium for eggs with a Humane certification, yet different certifiers have differing definitions of what constitutes a humanely raised hen. Until there… Read more
While EBT is widely accepted at supermarkets, families relying on EBT have not been able to buy local, sustainably grown food at farmers markets, since… Read more
What’s in a name? A lot, apparently. Names like ‘chicken formula for cats’ and ‘beef flavored dog food’ are actually regulated to mean very specific… Read more
Alongside China, India is quickly taking the lead in the global movement to convert farmland to certified organic crops.One Indian state implements sweeping change in… Read more
At around $200 per cup, Panda Ecological Tea is perhaps the most costly in the world. But does the essential ingredient—panda manure—justify the price? Read more
Pasture raised beef. Heritage breed pork. Free range turkey. These sound like menu items in an upscale restaurant, but they are what Fork in the… Read more
If you’re looking for the freshest local food on a budget, CSA and subscription schemes save time and money. Read more