What Is Citric Acid?

cut lemons with bowl of citric acid

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Citric acid is a natural component of fruits and fruit juices, with the largest amounts being in citrus fruits. In fact, it's what gives lemons and limes their characteristic sour flavor. Lemons and limes contain the most citric acid, but oranges, grapefruits, and other citrus fruits—and even berries—contain large amounts as well.

Health Benefits

Citric acid can provide some health benefits. It can slow kidney stone formation. The more citric acid you have in your urine, the less likely you are to form kidney stones.

Citric acid also aids metabolism. You already have citric acid in your body right now because it's a natural component of cellular metabolism. In fact, the citric acid cycle is the metabolic pathway by which foods are broken down into the water, carbon dioxide, and energy.

Citric Acid in Food

Citric acid is most often found naturally in citrus fruits and juices, but it is also present in smaller amounts in other fruits. Citric acid naturally exists in:

  • Lemons, lemon juice, and lemonade
  • Limes and lime juice
  • Grapefruits and grapefruit juice
  • Oranges and orange juice
  • Cherries
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Carrots

Uses

Citric acid is most commonly manufactured and used as a food additive. In fact, about 70% of all manufactured citric acid is used as an additive to food. It is also used in medications, dietary supplements, and some cleaning products.

Food Additive

Citric acid is used both as a natural flavor enhancer and preservative in a variety of foods, such as jams and jellies, and canned fruits and vegetables. It's also used in ice cream, fruit drinks, candy, and carbonated beverages. It helps to regulate acidity, functions as an antioxidant, and helps retain color. Because of its low pH and acidic profile, citric acid can help protect against botulism in canned goods and other preserved foods.

The citric acid used in food additives is made by a bacteria called Aspergillus niger. It was first produced in England from lemons in the early 1800s. Lemon juice was the primary source of citric acid until 1919 when the first industrial process using A. niger began in Belgium. Today, most citric acid is produced in Mexico and Africa.

Medication and Dietary Supplements

Citric acid and its close relative citrate are also used as inactive ingredients in certain medications and dietary supplements. It is often used to control the pH in medications and supplements because of of its acidity. Citrate also has a slightly pleasant sour taste, making it ideal to mask the bitter taste of some medicines and supplements.

Cleaning Products

Citric acid and citrate are commonly used in household and commercial cleaning solutions to remove build-up, rust, and hard-water stains. Its low pH also makes it useful in controlling the pH of household cleaners.

Citric acid also has antibacterial properties and is often used as a disinfectant. It is particularly useful in disinfecting hospital and clinical settings (such as dialysis machines) because of its effect against bacteria and viruses. It has also been shown to protect against certain viral infections.

Safety

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers citric acid to be safe for use as a food additive. It appears that all the citric acid you consume is completely metabolized in your body—there's no toxic build-up, and it's not stored.

Because manufactured citric acid is made by fermenting Aspergillus niger, which is essentially black mold, some researchers feel that there is a potential for an inflammatory response when eating foods with citric acid. There are some anecdotal reports of people who are sensitive to foods that contain citric acid. In these cases, people experienced increased inflammatory symptoms after consuming foods with citric acid It's difficult to determine if someone has an actual citric acid allergy or sensitivity because it's found in, or added to, so many different foods.

On average, the amount of citric acid added to food products by manufacturers is about 500 milligrams per person per day, which is equal to the amount found in two ounces of orange juice. It's not enough to change the citric acid levels in your body.

Something else to watch out for with citric acid is its effect on your tooth enamel. Consuming excessive amounts of citric acid (like acidic drinks such as soda) over a long period of time can lead to the erosion of your tooth enamel. You can counteract this by rinsing your mouth with water after, drinking through a straw, consuming these acidic drinks in moderation, or even better—swapping soft drinks with water.

A Word From Verywell

Natural sources of citric acid are commonly found in many fruits and are safe to eat. However, most of the citric acid we consume or use comes from manufactured sources. The citric acid found in food additives is generally considered as safe by the FDA, but there have been some anecdotal reports of inflammatory reactions after consuming foods with citric acid. Before making any changes to your diet, consult with your physician.

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