What is Citric Acid?

Published January 19th, 2022 by Chris Riley
Fact Checked by
Erik Rivera
Medically Reviewed:
Dr. Angel Rivera

Citric acid is a natural preservative that can be found in many things we eat and drink.

It's also used as an additive ingredient in foods and drinks to make drinks like sodas and juices.

Citric acid has many benefits including lowering the pH of acidic foods or beverages which can help them taste better, acting as an antioxidant to prevent oxidation of certain molecules like vitamin C, and preventing bacteria growth by acting as a chelating agent, which bonds compounds to metals.

The citric acid cycle is how citric acid gets converted into energy for our cells so it's important to have enough citric acid in your diet.

Please continue reading to find out more about citric acid.

What is citric acid and citric acid uses?

Citric acid is also known as citrate, citrique, or tricarballylic acid.

It is a weak organic acid found naturally in citrus fruits like lemons, limes, and grapefruits; it is also produced synthetically for use in soft drinks around the world and has other uses too.

Citric acid can also be found in other fruits and vegetables, such as citronella.

citric acid

Citric acid is used for preserving food like pickles or cheese. It acts as a preservative by preventing the growth of microorganisms when added to certain products.

Citric acid increases the acid content of food and is used in citric juices, soft drinks, juice concentrates, jams, or jellies.

It can also be found as an ingredient in some cosmetics such as shampoos for its cleansing effect on the scalp.

Citric acid acts by removing perspiration odor from clothes without bleaching them and reducing fabric deposits that cause yellowing.

Citric acid can be made into citrates and citrate salts of metals such as sodium in table salt, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese.

It is also used as a preservative in bread and baking powder.

Citric acid is also commonly found in products such as monosodium citrate, sodium citrate, disodium citrate, or trisodium citrate; it can be used to dissolve certain minerals.

What is the citric acid cycle?

The citric acid cycle (CAC) is a series of chemical reactions that take place in all living cells.

The citric acid cycle is also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) or Krebs cycle, after Hans Adolf Krebs who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1953 for its discovery.

The citric acid cycle is like a citric acid "fuel" cycle in that it is a metabolic pathway that produces energy for cells.

It takes place in the mitochondria of a cell, which are usually found near the enzymes and molecules used during the citric acid process.

Citric Acid Food Sources

Natural citrus fruits are the most common source of citric acid.

Fresh lemons are the most abundant source of citric acid in the diet.

The citrate content of citrus fruits ranges from 200 mg/100g for oranges to 350 mg/100 g for grapefruits and lemons.

Below is a list of fruits that are natural sources for containing the highest amounts of citric acid.

  • Lemons
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruits
  • Berries
  • Limes
  • Tangerines
  • Pomelos

There are other foods like tomatoes and pineapple that also contain citric acid but in lesser quantities.

You can always read the labels of the food and drink you buy to see if it contains citric acid.

Artificial citric acid

Some manufacturers use citric acid to adjust the pH or acidity level in foods. It can also be used as a preservative or antioxidant.

Citric acid is sometimes used to improve flavor and help maintain the color of foods like citric juices, soft drinks, and juice concentrates.

Below is a list of food or drink that are common sources of citric acid.

  • Sodas
  • Juices
  • Frozen food
  • Cultured dairy products
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Alcohol
  • Ice cream and sorbet

Besides the food industry, there are others that also use citric acid production for other uses.

Below is a list of common uses for citric acid that does not involve the food and beverage industry.

Medicine

Citric acid is used in medicines such as antacids and laxatives.

It is also used to make citrate salts of metals, which are then used as medicines.

Household cleaning products

Citric acid can be found in some household products such as window cleaners, cleaning agent in metal treatment for polishes, and laundry detergents as it can help remove the buildup of hard water and can remove stains and odors.

Cosmetics and personal care products

Citric acid is used in some cosmetic products such as shampoos and hair conditioners.

It can help to clear the scalp of dirt, oil, and dead skin cells while leaving the hair shiny.

Citric acid also can be used in cosmetics as it can combine with other ingredients to make alpha hydroxy acid which is used to help the skin.

Chelating agent

Citric acid is also used as a chelating agent in several industrial fields.

Chelating agents are chemicals that bind to metal ions and help remove them from a solution.

This is important in many industrial processes such as water treatment, where metals like lead and copper can be harmful if they're not removed.

Disinfectants

Citric acid is also used in some disinfectants as it can help to kill viruses and bacteria.

You can find it in bug sprays and in hand sanitizers too.

Environmental cleanup

Citric acid can be used to remove toxins from soil that is already polluted.

There is even a citric acid treatment in cleaning up nuclear waste.

Supplements

Some people use citric acid to make vitamin C. When used in this way, citric acid is not a food additive.

It is usually sold as an ingredient in dietary supplement products or as part of multi-nutrient formulas.

What are the benefits of citric acid?

There are many beneficial effects of citric acid across all of its uses.

The main benefit in your food is that citric acid, using the citric acid cycle, converts your food into energy.

It can also help to improve the flavor and appearance of food and drinks.

When you ingest citric acid, it can also help with the absorption of other minerals too by making them more bioavailable than in their own form.

Citric acid can be used as a preservative, antioxidant, and cleaning agent too. It has been known to be helpful in environmental cleanup efforts as well.

Are there any adverse effects from using citric acid?

There is no citric acid food allergy although you can have a citric acid food sensitivy but this condition is very rare.

Citric acid is a natural food additive so it is generally considered to be safe for most people. It can cause mild stomach upset, including vomiting and nausea, when ingested at high levels.

Some people also get an allergic reaction on their skin when exposed to it. It is an acid, so if it gets in your eyes it will burn. Please flush your eyes for several minutes should this happen and take out your contacts.

Citric acid will also wear away the enamel on your teeth which can lead to them being weaker, yellowing, sensitive teeth, and cavities. If you believe any symptoms were caused by citric acid please talk to your healthcare provider or doctor.

Summary

Citric acid is a chemical that can be found in many food and drink products. It's found in a variety of other products from household cleaners to cosmetics too.

When consumed, citric acid provides energy for your body to use as fuel by utilizing the citric acid cycle.

It also helps with the absorption of other minerals so you get more benefit from them. Citric acid is generally considered to be safe when used in its food form.

There are some adverse effects when it comes to citric acid such as stomach upset, allergic reactions on the skin, and weakening of your teeth among others. 

References and Sources:

doi.org

pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

liebertpub.com

mskcc.org

eufic.org

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