What Is Citric Acid & Is It Harmful To Health

by Raksha Hegde last updated -

You may have had citric acid while sipping your favorite cola or iced tea, and not even known it. It is one of the most common food additives used today. While it is naturally found in citrus fruits, citric acid is also produced in millions of tonnes chemically and used across the globe. Is it good for you and how exactly is it produced? Let’s delve deeper to find out.

What is Citric Acid?

Citric acid is a weak organic acid that is found naturally in citrus fruits like lemons and limes. It is also manufactured chemically through a process of mold fermentation. This artificial citric acid can occur as colorless and odorless crystals or white, crystalline powder, with a bitter, sour taste. It is a natural preservative and is used by the food and beverage industry as well as pharmaceutical companies. Here are the top sources: [1]

A smiling girl holding a glass of juice with flying citrus halves tied to her pigtails, standing against a blue background.

Citrus juice has more benefits than just its refreshing taste. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Natural Source

The natural sources for citric acid include: [2]

Artificial Source

Almost all of the citric acid global production is carried out using Aspergillus niger, a common black fungusAspergillus niger causes black mold on certain foods and while it is not deadly, it may cause sickness and allergic reactions in some cases. [3]

The most common products that contain manufactured citric acid include the following:

  • Sodas
  • Beverages
  • Powdered drink mixes
  • Frozen food
  • Candies
  • Disinfectants [4]
  • Medications
  • Foods with a shelf-life, like jams, jellies, canned items [5]
  • Meat products
  • Baby food
  • Medications

Is Citric Acid Safe to Eat?

Citric acid is not harmful to you and is safe to have. In fact, the natural acid present in limes and lemons is good for health. Let us look at the top health benefits of this acid.

Rich in Antioxidants

Citric acid is rich in antioxidants and could help in reducing oxidative stress in the brain, according to a study published in The Journal of Medicinal Food. Researchers suggest that there is a need to explore the therapeutic potential of using the acid as a nutraceutical supplement to treat toxic and inflammatory conditions of the brain and liver tissues. [6]

May Protect the Liver

It may have a hepatoprotective effect on the liver. An animal study published in the Elsevier journal reveals that the acid protects the liver from the effects of toxins. However, further studies are required to verify this claim. [7]

Prevents Kidney Stones

Citric acid can prevent the formation of kidney stones. A report suggests the natural acid in lemons and limes may reduce the risk of urinary stone formation and its recurrence. According to Kristina Penniston, Ph.D., RD, this acid makes the urine less favorable for the formation of stones. She suggests drinking 1/2 cup (4 ounces) of pure lemon juice every day or squeezing it on salads and meat dishes. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor before making any changes in your diet if you are suffering from kidney stones. [8] [9]

Increases Nutrient Absorption

Citric acid can help improve the bio-availability of nutrients in foods. A study conducted on laboratory rats showed that dietary acid supplementation increased the availability of calcium and phosphorus. Researchers concluded that the acid may play a part in increasing bone mineral concentration as it helps increase nutrient absorption. [10]

Possible Side Effects of Citric Acid

Artificial citric acid is approved by the US FDA for consumption. However, a report in Elsevier’s Toxicology Reports journal detailed four cases of individuals who suffered possible side effects of having manufactured citric acid (MCA) in excess. Researchers could not confirm that it is the acid which caused it but further studies are required to test the theory. Let us look at the possible cons of ingesting citric acid. [11]

  • Joint swelling & abdominal bloating: A 52-year old woman with a history of post-surgical hypothyroidism experienced joint pain and abdominal discomfort from her late 30s. After a series of tests as well as trial and error, she realized it could be due to foods containing MCA. Her symptoms went away after she avoided foods that contained MCA.
  • Dyspnea: In certain individuals, it can cause dyspnea. According to a report in the Cough journal, citric acid consumption can cause the cough threshold to go down in smokers. [12]
  • Muscle pain: You can experience muscle pain and swelling, as well as severe joint pain.
  • Severe enervation: Consumption of MCA can cause a feeling of enervation and mental fatigue.
  • Mold allergy: Although MCA is made from A niger, which does not cause usually cause any reactions, it could elicit an allergic reaction from people who are very allergic to fungi. [13]
  • Erosion of tooth enamel: Excessive citric acid can cause erosion of the tooth surface and enamel. It is best to avoid excessive consumption of packaged foods to avoid possible side effects of any kind. [14]

According to a report by Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan, you should always discuss with your doctor before taking a citric acid supplement. It is not advisable to use this medication if you are allergic to, or if you have: [15]

  • Kidney disease
  • Heart problems
  • Hyperkalemia (high potassium levels in your blood)
  • Hypernatremia (high sodium level in your blood)
  • Severe dehydration
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About the Author

Raksha Hegde is the content director at Organic Facts and helps oversee a team of brilliant, dynamic content writers. She completed her MS in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University, US. A former business news journalist and editor, Raksha followed her passion for wellness to become a certified Yoga teacher and a wellness festival curator. She believes that learning is a life-long process; she did a certificate e-course on “Introduction to Food and Health” in 2019 from Stanford University, US. 

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