If you are an avid label-reader, you may have seen citric acid in various food products, and if you’re not, you might be thinking this is just fancy lemon juice. Citric acid is a really common flavor enhancer and preservative that’s used in just about everything you get at your local grocery store. And while the name might suggest that it’s a derivative of harmless citrus, the truth might cause some surprise. Read on to learn the history and truth behind this exceedingly common ingredient lurking in your food.
To give you a full understanding, we first need to dive a little into the history.
Citric acid was discovered in the 8th century by an Islamic alchemist, but the chemical isolation of it didn’t occur until 1784, when a Swedish chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele isolated it from lemon juice. One hundred years later, around 1890, industrial scale manufacturing began, and was dependent on the Italian citrus fruit industry.
In 1893, C. Wehmer discovered that penicillium mold could produce citric acid from sugar, but this process wasn’t widely adopted because it was hard to implement on a commercial-scale.
This is where the story starts to get interesting.
In the late 1800’s, Pfizer began to manufacture citric acid from citrus fruit - just as the soft drink industry was starting to boom. At the time, Pfizer was still a relatively new chemical company and had only made a few successful drugs. Their industrial production of citric acid was a great success, and was a big reason the company grew exponentially during that time.
Due to major supply disruptions from Italy caused by the First World War, Pfizer hired a food chemist, James Currie, who discovered that citric acid could be obtained from feeding sugar to Aspergillus niger, also known as black mold. This was a huge turning point for the citric acid industry because it meant that expensive citrus fruits were no longer required and could be substituted for cheap crops, like corn. Pfizer blitz-scaled the production of citric acid using this new fermentation process and the price dropped from $1.25 per pound to $.20 per pound. As you can imagine, this drastic cost reduction made processed, packaged food even more attractive to manufacturers.
Fast forward to today: The citric acid industry brings in about $2.5 billion per year as of 2016, and is estimated to make $3.9B by 2024 - a 56% increase in just 8 years. Pfizer no longer enjoys a monopoly on citric acid production - In fact, China has become the biggest producer, controlling about 60% of the market.
As we turn our attention to some of the health effects, it should be noted that when talking about citric acid, we are solely referring to the kind that is derived from black mold, not citrus fruit unless otherwise specified, it may also be referred to as manufactured citric acid.
Citric acid is GRAS, which stands for generally recognized as safe (which is an interesting categorization that will be expounded upon in a later post). Upon learning this, you may be confused. And that’s because we can all agree that it’s natural to have reservations about consuming something that’s come from black mold, given that it's toxic. There are nuances, like different strains and different levels of toxicity, of course, but generally speaking, it's a worrying fact. Further investigation reveals that there aren't any long-term studies on consuming large amounts of citric acid, which raises the question of how it could be considered generally safe in the absence of any solid evidence to support this claim.
To show you the prevalence of manufactured citric acid today, pause reading this article, go to your fridge and pantry and look at some of the ingredients of your food. Seriously, go do it, it will blow your mind. It’s likely in your frozen fruit and vegetables, beverages, and even in your protein powder. Aside from food and beverages (which includes wine, sorry), it’s also found in cosmetics, personal care products, animal feed, pharmaceuticals, and even things like cement, concrete, and plaster. Citric acid is therefore not only ingested, but also applied directly to the skin to the skin, and don't forget that our skin readily absorbs what is applied topically. Depending on the substance, transdermal absorption can actually be higher than oral absorption. As a little experiment, try tracking how many products you consume or use that have manufactured citric acid over the course of a week. Those small amounts in each product add up quickly, you will be amazed at how much of this stuff you likely consume. If you actually do this, shoot us an email, because we genuinely want to know.
There have been numerous studies linking the consumption of manufactured citric acid to symptoms like acid reflux, nausea, stomach pain, cramps, and even hives. This is because some people are more sensitive to mold and can develop allergic reactions to it. In fact, these allergies and intolerances can start from a very young age because most baby food contains citric acid. It should be heavily emphasized that baby food has a GMO-corn mold derivative as a preservative and or vitamin-enricher. Sadly, it’s not providing your newborn with more Vitamin C, that is an industry lie.
At this point, some of you at this point might be going “but they extract all of the citric acid out and it’s refined so there’s no mold spores left”. Well, not exactly. The manufacturing process does leave behind mold residues, which could be problematic for those with mold sensitivity or an already impaired immune system, or those who have not yet developed a good immune system...like an infant who is being fed Gerber.
So let’s get into the mechanics of this.
The typical process for making citric acid goes like this, although it can vary slightly depending on the manufacturer: corn is soaked in water with sulfur dioxide in order to remove the corn kernel and the remaining liquor is what is used to make the citric acid. However, during this process, the corn protein gets completely degraded, and manufacturers don’t remove this remaining protein, which leads to the protein becoming hydrolyzed, which means there is now free glutamic acid, aka MSG in the citric acid. Citric acid also has the capability to react with other proteins it comes in contact with (in processed foods), thus freeing up even more glutamic acid.
Because this manufactured citric acid contains MSG, it is now considered an excitotoxin. An excitotoxin is a type of chemical that over-stimulates neuron receptors. In the case of food additives, they’re used to excite the neurons on your tongue, so you want to eat more of whatever processed crap is being sold to you. Unfortunately, this leads to rapid nerve cell death, because the cells are stimulated to death. Too much of this can lead to brain and nerve damage.
This is the part of the article where the reader should be reminded that this is added to baby food, and that companies that put “no MSG” on their labels are legally allowed to add citric acid to their products.
One study, albeit small, found that manufactured citric acid could be the culprit behind patient’s complaints of joint pain, respiratory distress, IBS, cramping, and muscular pain.
Citric acid can also be irritating to the intestinal tract and stomach lining, so if you’re someone who already has issues with inflammation, issues like GERD or IBS, this would be an additive to stay away from.
Another interesting thing about citric acid is that in the presence of sodium benzoate, it can create benzene, which is a known carcinogen. And this conversion can take place directly in the drink container, while on a store shelf. So the next time you’re reaching for that Red Bull or Coca Cola, you might be consuming cancer-causing ingredients.
This is more of an aside, but it should be emphasized that when we consume these various additives, the impact might not be apparent immediately. You might not feel really sick, because it’s working on a smaller scale in your body to create inflammation, which can later on lead to bigger issues. However, if you’re experiencing pain or discomfort after you eat food, that’s not normal, and your body is trying to tell you something.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with citric acid from natural sources like citrus fruit or other acidic foods like tomatoes. In fact, there can be some health benefits to consuming it, but issues arise when it’s derived from GMO corn and black mold and undergo massive processing. If you’re wanting to get the benefits of citric acid, perhaps eat an orange, or since they’re in season, grab a pomegranate.
So why use corn? Well, for one, corn is heavily subsidized, which makes it one of the most cost-effective ingredients for manufacturers. Second, the variety of corn that is used on an industrial-scale is called yellow dent corn, or field corn, and it’s very high in starch, which makes it attractive for producers of citric acid, high fructose corn syrup, and other pillars of the American diet. Due to FDA loopholes, citric acid from GMO-corn is allowed to be labeled non-GMO. The black mold used in citric acid production has also gone through numerous rounds of genetic modification to increase yields. One process that has been used is gamma radiation to mutate the mold strain in order to increase yields.
Now, there are some companies that use citrus-derived citric acid, but the labeling often won’t tell you that. The only sure way to know is to contact the company directly and ask for a Certificate of Analysis to verify their source. If they use a synthetic version, write to the company and request that they use a natural source. Generally, you want them to be using an organic source to avoid glyphosate exposure. An even better way to avoid citric acid is to just not consume packaged goods.
We would love to hear from you about your experiences consuming citric acid, and if you’ve noticed any difference from cutting it out of your diet. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to connect or leave a comment below!