Citric acid: It’s one of the most common food additives found in our food supply today, yet for many of us it remains a mysterious ingredient. In some countries, citric acid has been used as an additive in foods, cosmetics and many other products for more than 100 years, mostly as a preservative and flavor enhancer. Given how much you probably encounter it, you might be wondering if it’s an ingredient to avoid or whether it might actually offer some health benefits.
Where do you find citric acid exactly? It is found in foods like citrus fruits (especially lemons and limes), plus a variety of packaged/processed foods, especially those that have an acidic or sour taste. You’ll find citric acid in foods and drinks like pre-packaged fruits and veggies, canned or jarred foods, hummus, salsa, chicken stock, some yogurts and cheeses, baked goods and desserts, soft drinks, beer and wine. It’s also an ingredient in many skincare, cleaning and industrial products, such as laundry detergent, kitchen cleaners, dyes and chemical solvents. (1)
What happens when you eat citric acid? It enters your bloodstream and eventually ends up in your urine, where it makes your urine less acidic. It also has been shown to have antioxidant, alkalizing and anti-inflammatory properties. That being said, it can be irritating to some people who have sensitive digestive systems, acid reflux, allergies or sensitive skin.
When it comes to increasing your intake of citrus acid, the best way to do this is to have more fruits and vegetables every day, especially the citrus variety (lemons, limes, oranges, etc.). Lemon and limes are some of the most beneficial alkalizing foods we can eat on a regular basis, and they have loads to offer aside from providing us with citric acid.
What Is Citric Acid?
Citric acid is a common food additive and chemical that’s naturally found in citrus fruits and their juices. It’s considered a weak organic acid but not an essential vitamin or mineral because we don’t require it from our diets. It can either be naturally occurring, meaning the type found in plants, or man-made in a lab.
To synthetically create citric acid, the type that is used in most mass-produced processed foods, sugar is fed to the fungus called Aspergillus niger, which is a common black mold. Sugars, typically from cane sugar, beets or corn syrup, are “fed” to the fungus and then mixed with other ingredients like ammonium nitrate, potassium phosphate, magnesium sulfate and zinc sulfate. Over the course of six to 15 days, citric acid is formed during fermentation. This process has been carried out since the 1920s, when microbial production of the acid on a commercial scale first begun. (2)
As an organic acid, citric acid if a component of the tricarboxylic acid or Krebs cycle. It is found in all animal tissues and is formed from oxidative metabolic processes. Today, the substance called citrate is also produced from citric acid, which is a salt or ester that is intended to manage certain health conditions.
Some of the most common citric acid uses include:
- Preserving foods and beverages, due to ability to maintain stability of ingredients
- Adding a citrus or sour flavor to foods/drinks
- Acting as a chelating agent, which helps preserve foods’ texture
- Providing fragrance in beauty and cleaning products
- Acting as a pH adjuster and alkalizing agent
- Helping with buffering of ingredients
- Working as a solvent for cleaning and degreasing
- Acting as an anticoagulant by chelating calcium in blood
Pros and Cons
Is citric acid safe to consume? According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), citric acid is “classified as not expected to be potentially toxic or harmful and classified as a low human health priority.” (3) The FDA gives it a “Food Additive Status” of “designated as safe for general or specific, limited use in food.” The risks of consuming citric acid or applying it to your skin generally seem to be low, and it is used in most countries, including the U.S., with little restriction. (4)
What does citric acid do to the body? Below is more about some of the pros and cons associated with this acid.
Potential Benefits of Citric Acid
- May Have Anti-Inflammatory and Antioxidant Effects — Citric acid has been shown in certain studies to have antioxidant properties, meaning it can help to combat oxidative stress (or free radical damage). In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food researchers investigated the connection between citric acid and endotoxin-induced oxidative stress of the brain and liver in mice. They found that citric acid decreased brain lipid peroxidation and inflammation, liver damage, and DNA fragmentation in mice following injections that were meant to cause oxidative stress to their brains and livers. Studies have indicated that citric acid may help decrease lipid peroxidation and downregulate inflammation by reducing cell degranulation and attenuating the release of inflammatory compounds like myeloperoxidase, elastase, interleukin and platelet factor 4. (5)
- Has Alkalizing Effects — Citric acid is considered an alkalizing substance — despite that it has an acidic taste — which means that it can help to counteract the effects of eating lots of acidic foods, like meat and processed grains, for example. Alkaline foods have higher quantities of alkaline-forming minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, manganese and iron, and they may help with mineral absorption.
- May Improve Endothelial Function — Some research has shown that citric acid can help improve functions of the endothelium, which is a thin membrane that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels and helps with vascular relaxation and contraction, blood clotting, immune function, and platelet aggregation. (6) It seems to do this by reducing inflammatory markers. The salts of citric acid, called citrates, can be used as anticoagulants (commonly referred to as blood thinners) due to their calcium-chelating abilities.
- May Help Prevent Kidney Stones — Kidney stones are more likely to develop when has someone has very acidic urine. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital Metabolic Stone Clinic, “Citric acid is protective; the more citric acid in your urine, the more protected you are against forming new kidney stones.” (7) Citric acid and potassium citrate are alkalinizing agents that make the urine less acidic, so they are used to prevent gout, kidney stones or metabolic acidosis in people with kidney problems. Citric acid can help prevent small stones from becoming larger “problem stones” by coating them and preventing material from attaching to the stones.
- Can Support Skin Health — What does citric acid do to your skin? It is an alpha hydroxy acid that is added to some skincare or personal care products to adjust the acidity or promote skin peeling and regrowth. You’ll find it in certain anti-aging products, such as serums, masks and night creams. It is recognized as an antioxidant that can help protect skin against photo-aging, environmental damage and oxidative stress. (8)
Risks and Side Effects
Why might citric acid be harmful to the body? Overall, while there’s concern that artificial citric acid may have some negative health effects — especially when consumed in large amounts from packaged foods — there isn’ t clear evidence from large studies showing a connection between this acid and health concerns. However, the following side effects may occur.
- May Irritate Skin — For some people, especially those with sensitive skin, citric acid found in skin/beauty products may be too strong and can be irritating. When it’s used in cleaning products, it can also potentially irritate the nasal passageways and trigger asthma symptoms.
- Often Made with GMO Ingredients — Man-made citric acid is commonly produced using sugars from beets and corn, which are very likely to be genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
- Might Worsen Digestive Pains — If you suffer from low stomach acid, this doesn’t mean you necessarily need to avoid acidic foods/beverages. Acidic food like lemons, limes and tomatoes have an alkalizing effect on the body after digestion, meaning they start out as acidic but then become more alkaline. Note that acidic foods do not cause issues like acid reflux or ulcers, but they may trigger the symptoms of heartburn/GERD/acid reflux in some people. Low stomach acid can be a sign you’re not producing enough hydrochloric acid (stomach acid), which you can help reverse by eating a variety of cooked and raw vegetables; increasing your intake of magnesium, potassium, fiber and antioxidants; and avoiding processed foods, refined grains, added sugars, too much alcohol or caffeine, and foods with additives.
- May Be Linked to Mold Reactions — While studies haven’t clearly shown that citric acid created from Aspergillus is harmful, some still worry that it can cause impaired immune function, allergies and other side effects if inhaled. The species of Aspergillus used to make the acid (Aspergillus niger) does not seem to be lethal or toxic in most situations, but people with impaired immune function may benefit from limiting their exposure.
Which foods and beverages provide the most citric acid? It is most concentrated in:
- Citrus fruits and juices — especially lemons and limes and their juices
- Other citrus fruits that provide citric acid include oranges, grapefruits and tangerines
- To a lesser degree pineapple/pineapple juice and berries like strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and cranberries contain citric acid
The very best way to naturally obtain more citric acid from foods alone (not supplements) is to consume fresh lemon and lime juice. Even though both are excellent sources of citric acid, they won’t provide as much as pharmacological products that contain high doses of citric acid/citrate. One example is potassium citrate, which is sometimes prescribed as a treatment for kidney stones.
If you were to drink about one half-cup (4 ounces) of pure lemon juice per day (or 32 ounces of lemonade that you make using this amount of lemon juice), you would consume roughly the same amount of citric acid that is found in some pharmacological products.
Uses in Traditional Medicine
What is citric acid used for in traditional systems of medicine? In Ayurveda, acidic foods (like lemon, lime, garlic, vinegar, sour cream, yogurt and fermented foods) and substances are said to be “Pitta-aggravating foods,” meaning they can irritate the stomach when eaten in high amounts, but they also balance Vata dosha. This is why it’s recommended that some people limit intake of vinegar, tomatoes, sour citrus fruits, orange juice, salsa, yogurt (except lassi), onions, garlic, chili peppers and alcohol if they find them irritating but increase consumption of acidic foods if they need more energy and “fire.”
According to Ayurveda, the primary elements of sour/bitter foods are Earth and fire, and they have a liquid, light, oily, hot/heating effect on digestion. They can help to increase emotions, including appreciation and understanding, while reducing criticism, jealousy and hate. Sour foods are believed to support the lungs and to have moistening, demulcent and laxative effects while promoting healthy flow of bile. (9)
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the “transformations of energy,” or five tastes of foods, are said to result in the most satisfying and nutritionally dense meals. The five tastes are bitter, salty, sweet, sour and pungent. In TCM, organs are said to be connected to each taste; a little of a particular taste can strengthen an organ system, whereas excess can weaken it. (10) Sour tastes are associated with the spring season and “wood element.” Sour-tasting foods (like sourdough bread, vinegar, wheat, sauerkraut and lemon/limes) are believed to have an energizing effect and to positively influence the liver and gallbladder, aiding in digestion.
Citric Acid vs. Ascorbic Acid vs. Malic Acid vs. Phosphoric Acid
- The sour taste of certain foods tends to be the result of acids, such as citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid, oxalic acid and ascorbic acid.
- Ascorbic acid, another name for vitamin C, is another nutrient found in citrus fruits and green vegetables. It’s been shown to have antioxidant effects and to be protective of eyes, skin, blood vessels and connective tissue. Some people choose to take take ascorbic acid as a vitamin with or without food, usually one to two times daily. (11)
- Like citric acid, malic acid is sour and used as a flavoring agent to give food a tart taste, plus as a preservative. It’s naturally occurring in some fruits and also wine. Malic acid is used in skincare products to help clear away dead skin cells and taken in supplement form to help treat acne, warts, dry mouth, chronic pain or fatigue, or fibromyalgia. (12)
- Phosphoric acid is used to give soft drinks a tangy flavor and to preservative foods/drinks by preventing the growth of mold and bacteria. This compound can be found in cola beverages, bottled and canned iced teas, bottled and canned coffee beverages, breakfast cereal bars, and nondairy creamers. Phosphoric acid plays a role in dental and bone health and is widely used in dentistry and orthodontics, such as to clean and smooth the surfaces of teeth and help with fillings. (13)
Citric Acid vs. Vinegar vs. Lemon Juice
Chefs and bakers like adding citric acid to recipes for a variety of reasons — including because it adds a sour flavor and highlights other ingredients. As a natural acid, it can help to balance flavors and increase the appeal of certain ingredients. According to an Epicurious article, acid is considered a “core element of balanced flavors (alongside, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami), so it’s kind of necessary in every dish.” (14)
- Is citric acid the same as vinegar, and if not, what makes the two different? While vinegar also has an acidic taste, the two are not the same thing. Citric acid is slightly more acidic than most vinegars, although it depends on the vinegar. Vinegars have a pH of around 2.4 to over 3. Citric acid powder is used as a dry alternative to lemon juice or vinegar in dry foods. For example, it’s used in seasonings, salts, flavoring powders and crunchy snacks because it doesn’t add liquid or moisture. (15)
- Is citric acid good for cleaning just like vinegar is, and will citric acid kill bacteria? Just like vinegar and lemon juice, citric acid can help to clean surfaces and equipment around your home. For example, you can use it to clean your automatic drip coffee maker or to make a counter spray. Mild acids like vinegar and lemon juice can be used for cleaning, dissolving limescale and cleaning dirty/greasy surfaces. Bacteria are unable to grow in an acidic environment, which is why acidic ingredients are used in cleaners.
- Many people like using white vinegar mixed with water as a practical solution for natural cleaning rather than lemon juice because white vinegar is cheaper than lemons, lasts longer, is easy to prepare and add to a spray bottle, and won’t leave behind sticky residue on surfaces. If you want to make a homemade natural cleaner with both concentrated lemon and white vinegar, mix the vinegar with water, add a few drops of lemon essential oil, and if you’d like, add some fresh lemon juice, orange peel and/or cinnamon.
Lemon juice is considered highly acidic, with a pH of 2 up to 2.6. Lemon juice contains about 0.05 grams per milliliter of citric acid. Can you use lemon juice instead of citric acid in recipes? It’s possible to use citric acid and fresh lemon juice in many of the same ways, such as when you’re canning fruits or vegetables to make jams, jellies, sauces or preserves. Use about 1/8 cup of lemon juice for each 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid. Both citric acid and lemon juice are used to lower pH level so the ingredients are safe for storage.
Where to Find
So what’s the bottom line when it comes to the risks and benefits of consuming citric acid? Overall, aim to reduce your intake from packaged and processed foods. You should also plan to increase consumption of natural citric acid from antioxidant-rich foods like lemons, limes, grapefruit and oranges.
Can you make citric acid at home? Citric acid powder (used in cooking) can be bought in large cooking stores that sell items like home canning supplies or online. It is sometimes labeled as “sour salt” due to its bitter taste. If you’re buying dry citric acid powder, look for one that is made from non-GMO fruit or organic sugar cane. Use lemon juice mixed with water instead if you don’t have citric acid.
It’s a good idea to check labels on any packaged foods you’re buying and also supplements, this way you know what additives you’re consuming. Check to see if the manufacturer specifies which kind of citric acid is used. A general rule of thumb is that the more processed and cheap a food is, the more likely it is to contain synthetic citric acid. Pharmaceutical/nutraceutical companies usually use higher-quality ingredients and add fewer additives.
Recipes and Alternatives
Here are ways you can naturally start consuming more citric acid (especially from lemon and lime juice, the best natural sources):
- Squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice directly into water, herbal tea, smoothies, diluted fruit juice, vegetable juices, tea, etc. You can also squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice into ice cube trays before freezing. This way you have cold juice cubes on hand to add to water. Remember that drinking plenty of water every day helps to dilute your urine and prevent kidney stones.
- Make homemade low-sugar lemonade or limeade. Use about 2 ounces of lemon juice (or 1/4 cup) for every 16 ounces of water. If you’re looking for the most health benefits, drink this twice daily so you’re consuming about 4 ounces of fresh lemon juice per day. To sweeten your lemonade without needing much or any sugar, try adding organic stevia or monk fruit extract. You can also use a bit of raw honey.
- Make a lemon or lime spritzer by combining fresh lemon or lime juice with seltzer/club soda and slices and of your favorite fruit, such as oranges or grapefruit. A great way to slow down when drinking wine is to add some fruit and seltzer to make a spritzer.
- Add some fresh lemon juice on top of salads, fruit salads or sauteed vegetables. You can also add lemon juice to avocado, guacamole, hummus, spreads, sauces and marinades. Citric acid can help to keep cut fruits, such as apples or pears, from oxidizing or browning. Some food photographers and chefs swear by making a mixture of citric acid and water and then brushing it on the cut sides of pre-cut fruits and veggies so they don’t change color.
- Use lemon, lime or orange juice on fish or meats as part of marinades. These juices mix well with honey, herbs and olive oil.
- Make a lemon curd or custard for dessert.
- Add about a half teaspoon of citric acid to homemade sourdough bread recipes to amp up the sour, tangy flavor.
- Use about 1/2 teaspoon of citric acid dissolved in 2 tablespoons of water when making fresh cheeses, like ricotta, paneer or mozzarella. This can be substituted for 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar.
TIP: To get more juice from lemons or limes, try rolling them on a hard surface while pressing down with your palm or heating them for about 20 seconds in the microwave before cutting into them.
What can you use as a substitute for citric acid? You’ve probably guessed it by now: Vinegar and fresh lemon juice are the best replacements for citric acid powder. Can you substitute citric acid for cream of tartar? Tartaric acid, commonly known as cream of tartar, is another ingredient that provides a sour taste, although it’s usually a bit stronger tasting than citric acid. You can use citric acid if you don’t have cream of tartar but may need to use a bit more to get the flavor you’re looking for.
Supplements, Medications and Dosages
Because citric acid has a low pH, it is often used in dietary supplements and vitamins, since it can help with absorption of minerals and act as a preservative.
Citric acid, potassium citrate or sodium citrate are medications that should be taken between or after meals to help prevent stomach or intestinal side effects. If taking citrate in liquid form, it should be mixed with at lease four ounces of water or juice. Always carefully follow the directions on your prescription or supplements’s label to avoid taking too much.
It’s important to increase your fluid intake and to stay hydrated in order to get the most benefit from increasing your citric acid consumption. Have at least 10 eight-ounce glasses per day of water or other hydrating fluids, such as herbal tea, or even more if you’re very active or it’s very hot. Also try to avoid eating high-sodium foods (those that are high in salt) or using lots of extra table salt on your meals.
Before you take citric acid, be sure to talk to your doctor about your medical history, especially if you’ve had kidney disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, a history of heart attack, urinary problems, diabetes, swelling (edema), urination problems, or stomach ulcer or chronic diarrhea. Citric acid supplements/medications can also interact with antacids, heart or blood pressure medications, and diuretics.
What are potential effects of citric acid on the body to be aware of? It’s possible that it can be harmful if swallowed in large amounts. It may also cause skin irritation and allergic skin reactions, eye irritation, or potentially serious eye damage, nose and throat irritation. Can you be allergic to citric acid? Yes — rarely people will suffer from an allergy or asthma symptoms and breathing difficulty when they come into contact with the acid.
Can you possibly die from having too much citric acid? This acid is generally considered non-toxic. Most people would need to consume a very high dose of it to suffer serious side effects — much more than is found in most foods. However, there’s more concern regarding citric acid supplements and citrate medications. Serious side effects of taking too much citrate include numbness or tingly feeling, swelling or rapid weight gain, muscle twitching or cramps, fast or slow heart rate, confusion, or mood changes, bloody or tarry stools, severe stomach pain, ongoing diarrhea, or seizures. (16)
Should you avoid citric acid if you have heartburn or acid reflux symptoms? Acid reflux/heartburn is caused by acidic digestive juices creeping up from the stomach and entering back into the esophagus and can be due to low stomach acid, poor digestion, inflammation and other causes. To help manage acid reflux, you’ll want to cut back on oily, meaty foods, fast foods, processed cheeses, chocolate, alcohol and caffeine.
Spicy foods and acidic foods, like tomatoes, tomato products, onions, citrus fruits and citrus juice, may also make heartburn symptoms worse. While acidic foods aren’t usually the cause of heartburn, it might be best to avoid them until you’ve addressed other underlying issues. People who have peptic ulcers or other GI sensitivities may also experience irritation from citric acid, so they will want to limit their intake.
- Citric acid is found in foods like citrus fruits (especially lemons and limes), plus a variety of packaged/processed foods, especially those that have an acidic or sour taste. Foods with citric acid include pre-packaged fruits and veggies, canned or jarred foods, hummus, salsa, chicken stock, some yogurts and cheeses, baked goods and desserts, soft drinks, beer and wine.
- Citric acid uses include adding sour/bitter flavor to foods and drinks; acting as a preservative, emulsifier, pH balancer, fragrance and solvent for cleaning; and degreasing.
- It comes in dried powder form, liquid form, or as a supplement or medication called citrate.
- What can replace citric acid in recipes? When cooking, use fresh lemon juice mixed with water or a tiny bit of vinegar to get the same acidic effect and flavor.
- Benefits of this acid include antioxidant, alkalizing and anti-inflammatory effects; improving skin health; fighting kidney stones; and improving endothelial functions.
- In some cases, is citric acid bad for you or harmful? It is mostly harmless, but when found in packaged foods it’s often made from GMO ingredients and may be linked to mold and allergies. It can be irritating to the skin or digestive system and can interact with medications when taken in supplement form.