I have seen this ingredient in many products at the food store, including the organic section. Sometimes the list of ingredients looks perfect to me, until I get to the last one: Citric Acid.
That ingredient always gave me pause. So after looking at my thousandth organic salsa, organic hummus, and every other snack known to man – I became frustrated! What the heck is this weird ingredient? This is why I am writing this post, to see what’s the deal with this all-too-common additive.
In my head I picture lemon juice…and I wasn’t too far off, but my research also popped up a few things that are of interest.
What is Citric Acid?
Citric acid is found in so many things and is used in so many processes: from shampoo to soda to cheese to beer making to candy to medicine to varnish remover. Citric acid is derived from an acid found in many citrus fruits – it is quite tart, which is why it is used in sour candies and gummies to emulate the flavor of real sour lemon or lime. It is also used to balance the pH of food and preserve it for longer periods of time.
Citric acid is usually found as a white, powdery substance which has been described to taste similar to lemon juice.
So why is citric acid used? An article from the TLC website explains:
“Citric acid, an organic acid found in many fruits, especially limes, lemons and grapefruits…increases the acidity of a microbe’s environment, making it harder for bacteria and mold to survive and reproduce. It can also be used to bind to and neutralize fat-degrading metal ions that get into food via processing machinery.” (source)
How is it Processed?
Okay, so it comes from fruit, right? I mean, that makes the most sense, right? I was mistaken and found it interesting that most citric acid used is made synthetically by the fermentation of glucose. Then I came across this tidbit:
“The ability of the mold Aspergillus niger to produce citric acid as a byproduct of metabolism was discovered by American food chemist James Currie in 1917. The process of cultivating A. niger and allowing it to metabolize sucrose or glucose to yield citric acid proved efficient and inexpensive. Once it was possible to produce a seemingly endless supply of citric acid, companies like Pfizer and Citrique Belge began producing it on an industrial scale. This same technique is used to produce citric acid today.” (source)
With a little digging, I came across many things that said citric acid can potentially be produced with the aid of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). The process of making this citric acid utilizes sugar beets and maize, which are some of the biggest offenders of Genetically Modified foods here in the States. Also, there are some genetically modified strains of A. Niger – but I am not sure to what extent these strains are being used to produce citric acid in our food suppy. But companies aren’t required to label that, even in USDA Organic Label foods. (source)
Citric acid is a part food science, only sometimes coming from the delicious grapefruit, lemon, or lime. Big companies are now using GM-products to get higher yields since extracting from the actual citrus fruit is too expensive. Here is a list from the Non-GMO Project sharing common additives made with GM-processes:
“Common Ingredients Derived from GMO Risk Crops
Amino Acids, Aspartame, Ascorbic Acid, Sodium Ascorbate, Vitamin C, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Ethanol, Flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), High-Fructose Corn Syrup, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Lactic Acid, Maltodextrins, Molasses, Monosodium Glutamate, Sucrose, Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP), Xanthan Gum, Vitamins, Yeast Products.” (source)
Don’t know what GMO’s are? Read this.
Should We Consume Citric Acid?
I personally will avoid Citric Acid as much as possible, since it is not required to be labeled as being produced with GM-processes and products. But if you are interested in using or consuming citric acid (such as for cheesemaking), really do your research and find a non-GMO based citric acid.
Even if you buy organic, the citric acid in that organic food can be made with GM-products and processes unless explicitly labeled. When in doubt, call the company that manufactures that food and find out what they use. Or, better yet, make it homemade if possible!
Due to some negative and downright extremely nasty comments from all over the internet, I have decided to add this part of the post to magnify the important take-aways (9/10/13).
Whether or not you agree that the end product of citric acid is anything but citric acid, the point of my post is that at least here in the States it is impossible to know what is in our food supply unless you grow it or raise it yourself. I personally think that people need to really start asking the tough questions, like “What am I putting into my body?” and “What the heck is in my food?”
Whether you believe the end product contains GMOs or not is irrelevant; our food industry is supporting Genetically Modified foods. They are messing with our food on a genetic level. I personally believe that God made our food the way it is on purpose, and I don’t need a scientist to splice it any which way.
This is another huge reason I avoid citric acid. I don’t want to support GMOs, and I’d much rather have a true, citrus fruit in my food.
Being educated about your food, is much different than being fearful of it.