If you scan the ingredient list of many beverages, jams, canned vegetables, or frozen foods, you’ll likely come across something you can actually pronounce—citric acid.
Despite its prevalence, few consumers know what it is or where it comes from. (Although that first word should give you a clue…)
Here’s what you should know about citric acid, including its origin, uses, and benefits.
What is Citric Acid?
Citric acid is an edible acid naturally found in citrus fruits, giving them their sour taste. It is also commercially produced for a variety of applications in processed foods and beverages, cleaning products, pharmaceuticals, supplements, and cosmetics.
While lemons and limes are more known for their ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) content, citrus fruits actually contain more citric acid. In fact, citric acid can make up to 8 percent of the total dry mass of a lime or lemon!
The discovery of citric acid is attributed to the Persian alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan in the 8th century. However, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele first isolated citric acid from lemon juice.
Throughout the next century, citric acid became widely used in a variety of foods, cleaning products, and cosmetics as a preservative, flavor enhancer, and stabilizer. In the 20th century, American food chemist James Currie discovered that a common mold, Aspergillus niger, produced large quantities of citric acid when fed with a sugar solution.
This synthetic process revolutionized the market and became the new standard for its industrial production.
Uses of Citric Acid in Foods
„It is used in foods and beverages to increase acidity, enhance flavor, and preserve ingredients,“ explains Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. „It can also be added to fruit and vegetable preserves to protect against botulism, a rare but serious illness caused by bacteria.“
„Due to its diverse uses and benefits it offers, citric acid is one of the most commonly used food additives in the world,“ Goodson adds.
Here are just a few applications of citric acid:
Benefits of Citric Acid
While citric acid offers a range of benefits to food and beverage manufacturers, Goodson explains that citric acid can also provide a number of health benefits to consumers when consumed in food.
1. Antioxidant Properties
Some studies have shown that citric acid may enhance antioxidant activity.
Antioxidants are substances found in foods like fruits and vegetables that can prevent or delay certain types of cell damage caused by oxidative stress. Citric acid is credited with antioxidant effects as it contributes to supporting the immune system, liver, and brain function.
2. Mineral Absorption
Citric acid may help your body retain some important minerals. „Citric acid increases the bioavailability of certain minerals and helps your body absorb them better,“ explains Goodson.
Studies have confirmed a correlation between citric acid and the absorption of minerals, especially calcium and phosphorus.
3. Reduce Physical Fatigue
While further research is needed to understand the connection to physical fatigue, citric acid may also improve energy levels.
A small human study reported in the Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition found that oral intake of citric acid helped reduce physiological stress and fatigue in the body after intense exercise.
Although the reasons for this phenomenon are not fully clear, it is believed to be related to the energy generation cycle in which citric acid plays a vital role.
Is Citric Acid Harmful to You?
Concerned that citric acid may be harmful to you?
While 99 percent of the global production of citric acid is now made from lemons and not extracted, there is little evidence to suggest that citric acid— even the synthetic substance— poses health risks to consumers, says Goodson.
„Manufactured citric acid is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So consumers can feel safe consuming it as part of foods and beverages,“ explains Goodson.