Citric Acid Is in Everything: Does That Means It's OK to Consume?
Skim the ingredient list of many beverages, jams, canned vegetables, or frozen foods and you’re likely to come across one that you can actually pronounce — citric acid. But despite its prevalence, few consumers know what it is or where it comes from. (Though that first word should give you a clue…)
Here’s what you should know about citric acid, including its origins, uses, and benefits.
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What Is Citric Acid?
Citric acid is an edible acid naturally found in citrus fruits, and it’s what gives them their sour taste. It’s also commercially manufactured for a wide variety of uses in processed foods and beverages, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements, and cosmetics.
While lemons and limes may be more commonly known for their ascorbic acid, a.k.a. Vitamin C, content, citrus fruits actually contain more citric acid. In fact, citric acid can account for as much as 8 percent of the total dry mass of a lime or lemon!
The initial discovery of citric acid is credited to eighth-century Persian alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan. But it wasn’t until the late 1700s when Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele first isolated citric acid from lemon juice. Over the next century, citric acid became widely used in a variety of food, cleaning, and cosmetic products as a preservative, flavor-enhancer, and stabilizer.
In the 1900s, American food chemist James Currie found that a common fungus that causes black mold on fruits and vegetables, Aspergillus niger, produces large amounts of citric acid when fed a sugar solution. This synthetic means of deriving citric acid revolutionized the market and became the new standard for its industrial production.
How Citric Acid Is Used in Food
Citric acid is widely employed in food and beverage products because of the variety of uses and benefits it offers, explains Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics.
“Citric acid is one of the most common food additives in the world,” she says. “It’s used in food and beverages to boost acidity, enhance flavor, and preserve ingredients. It can also be added to canned fruits and vegetables to protect against botulism, a rare but serious illness caused by bacteria.”
Here are just a few citric acid’s applications:
Are There Health Benefits of Citric Acid?
While citric acid offers a range of benefits for food and beverage manufacturers, Goodman explains that dietary citric acid can also provide a number of health benefits for consumers as well.
Antioxidant and anti-inflammation
Some research has shown that citric acid may benefit anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that citric acid was linked to decreased brain inflammation, liver damage, and DNA fragmentation in mice. A later study, in 2016, supported these findings.
Citric acid can help your body retain some key minerals. “Citric acid enhances the bioavailability of certain minerals, helping your body to better absorb them,” explains Goodman. Studies have supported a link between citric acid and mineral absorption, calcium and phosphorus, in particular.
Reducing physical fatigue
While more research is needed to understand its connection to physical fatigue, citric acid may also benefit energy levels. A small human study reported in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition found that oral consumption of citric acid helped reduce physiological stress and fatigue in the body after hard workouts.
While the reasons for this phenomenon aren’t fully understood, it’s theorized that it may have something to do with the cycle of energy production in which citric acid is a primary player.
Kidney stone prevention
Some research suggests citric acid might be beneficial to people at risk or suffering from kidney stones. “Citric acid, especially in the form of potassium citrate, may help keep new stones from forming and prevent those already formed from growing larger,” Goodman says.
Are There Risks Associated With Citric Acid?
Concerned that citric acid might be bad for you? While 99 percent of the world’s production of citric acid is now manufactured instead of derived from lemons, there is little evidence that citric acid — even the synthetic stuff — has health risks for consumers, says Goodman.
“Manufactured citric acid is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So consumers can feel safe consuming it as a part of food and beverages,” Goodman explains.
Though some species of Aspergilus fungi are known allergens, Aspergilus niger, used to make citric acid, is one of the least commonly reported sources of reactions. “While some mold residues from the manufacturing process may be present, triggering allergies in rare cases, individuals can feel safe consuming citric acid,” says Goodman.