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What Is Citric Acid & Should You Be Concerned About It

Citric acid (CA) is one of the most common ingredients in your home that you may have never noticed. Between beauty products, processed foods, and even cleaning agents, CA is practically everywhere. That being the case, it begs the question whether this nearly universal ingredient is healthy or harmful. Take a walk through the grocery store and you’ll notice the organic compound in almost every aisle, albeit for different purposes. Let’s take a closer look and see how concerned we should be about citric acid.

Citric Acid Explained

Citric acid has been around for a long time. In fact, records show that it was utilized as one of the first preservatives back in the 8th century. However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the scientific community accurately isolated the compound and identified it. Since then, CA has been used extensively by the medical and food industries.

While there are critics, there is still insufficient data to suggest that we should be slowing down our citric acid consumption. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to understand where the concern stems from. While most opponents don’t criticize CA in its natural form, their apprehension typically rests with its artificial production.

In its natural state, citric acid can be found in all oxygen-dependent life forms, particularly among citrus fruit. However, scientists discovered a way to synthesis citric acid production in 1917 using a form of black mold. Yes, mold.


Nowadays, most CA is created in labs by feeding glucose or sucrose to a specific species of black mold and letting it convert the sugar into citric acid. In addition to cheaper manufacturing, artificial CA has proved necessary out of a growing worldwide demand.

Just to get a glimpse of how pervasive it is, estimates indicate the annual global citric acid production to be approximately 2.2 million metric tons. Of this, around 70% ends up in food and beverages around the world with the rest added to non-food related products such as detergents, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics.

Citric Acid Cycle

The citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle, is the fundamental process by which living cells produce energy through cellular respiration. Without trying to give you a biology lesson, the 8 step process is a series of chemical reactions used by all oxygen-dependent organisms to create energy to perform all their necessary functions. The process begins with the oxidization of acetate, which is derived from proteins, fats, and carbs, into carbon dioxide and ATP.   

Citric Acid Cycle

Citric Acid Uses

The majority of the world’s citric acid is found in food and drinks, primarily as a flavoring or preservative. Although all major international food regulatory agencies have approved CA for consumption, many are alarmed at its practically universal presence. Similarly, many are bothered by the fact that the same ingredient is used to flavor their beverage and to clean their stove.

As a cleaning agent, citric acid can be used for its scent and to produce a foamy consistency. Likewise, CA is a remarkable emulsifying agent, making it a highly effective ingredient in soaps and detergents. Overall, many cleaning supplies rely on the organic compound to remove mineral deposits, kill germs, and moderate pH levels.

Washing With Soap

However, the universal compound gets a very different use in the pharmaceutical industry. Many biotech and pharmaceutical companies rely on citric acid to prevent corrosion of their equipment during volatile purification processes. Additionally, many medications add CA to boost the bioavailability of their key component.

In terms of its effect on health, it’s hard to argue that the risks outweigh the rewards. Citric acid is one of the most common naturally-occurring antioxidants which play a major role in combatting the effects of environmental pollutants and compromised immunity. Antioxidants target free radicals, promote cardiovascular health, and can even help lower the risk of developing serious diseases such as cancer.

Check out our in-depth feature: Antioxidants Explained

Additionally, CA assists the body in maintaining its proper pH levels, which can help prevent a variety of ailments such as kidney stones. Similarly, CA has been found to decrease inflammation on the cellular level, especially in the brain and liver. Moreover, its anti-inflammatory properties may assist in proper heart functioning and skin cell regrowth. 

Where to buy citric acid

Depending on your desired purpose, citric acid can be readily purchased at any number of stores, both online and brick-and-mortar. In practice, food-grade citric acid is available on most major online retailers such as iHerb, Walmart, and Amazon. Nevertheless, many traditional grocery chains will stock CA in the spice aisle labeled as lemon salt.

Citric Acid Substitute

Although citric acid poses no verifiable damaging effects, many people are considering turning to healthier alternatives. In fact, many companies are switching to organic, non-GMO CA instead of the more common synthetic version. Similarly, some folks are simply ridding their diet of processed CA altogether and adding more citrus to their diet in its place. Besides for citrus juices, you can also substitute CA with white distilled vinegar, tartaric acid, and even vitamin C powder.


  • Citric acid is nearly everywhere, including your favorite foods, beauty products, cleaning agents, and medications.

  • CA is so prevalent thanks to its effective use as an anticoagulant, fungicide, flavoring, preservative, bactericide, emulsifier, a natural pesticide, and a chelating agent. 

  • Citric Acid occurs naturally in all oxygen-dependent organisms and is a fundamental component of the production of cellular energy created in the Krebs cycle.

  • Although some people display allergic reactions to citric acid, there is reason to believe their symptoms may be caused by trace amounts of black mold or corn left over from the manufacturing process.

  • Citric acid can be labeled under many different names, depending on its application, including Anhydrous citric acid; lemon salt; citrate; 2-hydroxypropane-1,2,3-tricarboxylic acid; 2-Hydroxy-1,2,3-propanetricarboxylic acid; 3-Carboxy-3-hydroxypentane-1,5-dioic acid; 1,2,3-propanetricarboxylic acid; 2-Hydroxytricarballylic acid; 2-Hydroxypropanetricarboxylic acid; and C6H8O7.
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