Citric Acid: A Dangerous Deception

Citric acid is generally considered to be a natural and therefore completely harmless substance. In fact, it would be if it weren’t used as a concentrated acid in countless foods and beverages.

Citric acid is ubiquitous

If you stroll through a supermarket, you will encounter lemons at every turn. And by no means only in the fruit department.

The image of sun-ripened lemons can be found on countless labels for detergents, dishwashing and cleaning agents, descalers, room fragrances, and many other products. The illustration is intended to suggest to the consumer that this is natural freshness – freshness from the lemon.

If you continue to take a closer look at the labels of finished products, you will find them almost everywhere. The term “citric acid”, or “citric acid” written, can be found on almost every list of ingredients.

Citric acid misleads consumers

Many consumers instinctively associate the lemon fruit with the image of the lemon on the labels of household products as well as the declaration of citric acid on the ingredient list of finished products.

In this way, these products convey the appearance of naturalness, which has a correspondingly positive effect on customers’ purchasing behavior.

The food additive is usually labeled as E 330. However, since E numbers already have a bad image among many consumers, the term “citric acid” is often the only label used.

Consumers are also deliberately deceived in this way.

Citric Acid – Food industry darling

The use of citric acid in the food industry has taken on enormous proportions, as it is now one of the most important additives in food production.

This is not surprising either, since citric acid has some technologically important properties. It convinces the manufacturers of finished products with its function as a preservative and complexing agent as well as an acidifier, acidity regulator, and emulsifying salt.

Citric acid as a preservative

Citric acid reduces oxidation processes that accelerate food spoilage due to the effects of oxygen or light.

At the same time, citric acid also prevents changes in smell, color, and taste, which are also caused by oxidation processes. In this way, citric acid acts as an ideal preservative.

Citric acid as a complexing agent
Complexing agents generally have the ability to bind metals. These include heavy metals such as B. lead, as well as the light metal aluminum.

Therefore, in its capacity as a complexing agent, citric acid renders the traces of harmful metals contained in food harmless. That sounds very positive at first.

However, this property of citric acid should be treated with caution, considering that citric acid is able to cross the blood-brain barrier. In this way, it can get into the brain together with the metals.

Citric acid as an acidifier and acidity regulator

Citric acid is also used wherever the end product should have a fruity taste.

That’s why it’s on almost every list of ingredients in fruit juices, lemonades, ice teas, confectionery, gummy bears, ice cream, jams, canned fruit, and many other products.

As an acidity regulator, citric acid keeps the desired pH value of food constant.

Since bacteria multiply quickly in different pH ranges, citric acid also contributes to durable food through this property.

A constant pH value also improves the effectiveness of other preservatives contained in the product.

Citric acid as melting salt

Emulsifying salts are required for the production of processed cheese. They ensure that when the hard cheese is heated, the protein, fat, and water it contains mix to form a homogeneous mass and that this consistency is retained.

This explains why citric acid is also found in processed cheese, cream cheese, or cottage cheese.

The need for citric acid increases

As you can see, citric acid is found in countless convenience products and household items for a variety of reasons. Of course, this is not the acid of sun-ripened fruit in which citric acid occurs in its natural form.

Instead, only a special biotechnological process is used to manufacture these products, which is described in detail below.

The advantages of this process for the manufacturer are, on the one hand, the unlimited production possibilities and, on the other hand, the very low costs.

The disadvantages of citric acid produced in this way, which cannot be dismissed out of hand, are, of course, again exclusively at the expense of the consumer, how could it be otherwise? But more on that later.

Natural citric acid

One might think that the natural form of citric acid is only found in citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit.

That’s not entirely true, however, because citric acid is also found in berries, kiwis, tomatoes, and some other foods, albeit in much smaller amounts.

Interestingly, citric acid is also constantly being formed in the human organism. It is formed as an intermediate product in the so-called citric acid cycle.

This process, also known as the citric acid cycle, describes a complex sequence of biochemical reactions that take place in the mitochondria of the cells and serve the purpose of generating energy. At the end of this process, the citric acid is then broken down into carbon dioxide and hydrogen.

Isolated citric acid

Up until the end of the 19th century, citric acid was only extracted from unripe lemons. For this purpose, the fruits were pressed and the citric acid was isolated in a complicated process. This manufacturing process was as complex as it was expensive. Therefore little use was made of it.

When a scientist finally discovered that mold also produces citric acid as part of their metabolism, extracting citric acid from fruit quickly became meaningless.

Citric acid: Genetic engineering is usually involved

Citric acid was the first additive ever to be industrially produced on a large scale. The patent for the production of citric acid by the mold “Aspergillus niger” was first applied in 1913 in the USA.

And even today, only these mold cultures are used as production organisms, since they are best suited for the production of citric acid.

However, production as such has long been changed, because initially the mushrooms naturally only produced the amount of citric acid that corresponded to their natural metabolism.

With the development of a revolutionary new market, that of today’s finished products, the demand for citric acid grew steadily, so the production volume had to be increased to the same extent.

Since fungi are not naturally able to produce such large amounts of citric acid, the corresponding control circuits in the fungi’s metabolism were manipulated with the help of genetic engineering measures in such a way that the citric acid yield could be increased.

Apart from that, mold fungi grow on a sugar-containing nutrient solution made from molasses or glucose, the original plants of which (e.g. sugar beets, maize, etc.) may also have already been genetically modified.

In the USA and China, predominantly transgenic, i.e. genetically modified, fungal strains have been used for a long time.

Antibiotics in citric acid?

The fact that the nutrient solution on which the mold thrives often contains antibiotics is also not very appetizing. This medication is to ensure that the fungi are not attacked by any bacteria.

Remains of the antibiotics can of course also end up in foods and drinks containing citric acid. Constant intake of small amounts of antibiotics can lead to resistance over time, which could have serious consequences in the event of illness.

Some consequences of frequent consumption of products containing citric acid also become apparent quite quickly, such as the destruction of tooth enamel.

Citric acid as a tooth enamel eater

Tooth enamel consists mainly of a combination of calcium and phosphate. It gives the teeth their hardness and resilience. Unfortunately, this compound is acid-soluble, so citric acid can cause significant damage to tooth enamel.

The acid attacks the teeth immediately after consumption. The usually high sugar content of products containing citric acid increases the effect of the acid since acids are also produced when the bacteria in the oral cavity break down the sugar.

The longer citric acid can act on the tooth enamel, the greater the risk of irreparable tooth damage. Therefore, after consuming acidic products, the mouth should be rinsed out thoroughly with water.

The teeth of children and young people are particularly at risk because they often eat wine gums, sweets, lollipops, iced tea, cola, soft drinks, etc. regularly and in large quantities. So it is not surprising that the teeth of many children are in a deplorable condition.

A tooth can still be repaired in an emergency. The brain, however, hardly. However, another property of citric acid – its close “friendship” with aluminum – affects this in particular and thus promotes many diseases that only become apparent in old age.

Best Friends: Citric Acid and Aluminum

In its capacity as a complexing agent, citric acid can bind minerals such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, etc., as well as dangerous metals such as lead or aluminum. These linked molecules are then called citrates.

If aluminum forms a compound with citric acid, it is therefore an aluminum citrate.

Aluminum can be ingested through food or enter the body through the skin, such as through the use of certain deodorants.

Aluminum is generally very harmful to health. However, when the metal combines with citric acid to form aluminum citrate, its dangerous effects are significantly increased. Subsequent studies clearly demonstrated this.

Citric acid promotes the absorption of aluminum

In one of these studies, scientists used different aluminum compounds to check which of these compounds could be best absorbed by the test animal’s body.

It was shown that the use of aluminum citrate more than doubled the aluminum intake compared to the other aluminum compounds.

This means that regular consumption of products containing citric acid enormously promotes the absorption of aluminum in the body.

Another study showed the cell-damaging effect of aluminum citrates. Here, the combination of the two substances was found to accelerate oxidative damage to cell membranes.

Aluminum citrate damages cell membranes

During this process, free radicals get into the cell membranes and trigger a chain reaction that ultimately leads to cell damage.

Normally, endogenous antioxidants, such as e.g. B. the superoxide dismutase (SOD) and catalases attack the cell membranes. But it is precisely these important free-radical scavengers that are inhibited in their activity by the aluminum-citric acid complex.

This was the result of a study in which exactly this effect was observed in the cerebrum and liver.

Aluminum is everywhere

Aluminum is a metal that we are constantly confronted with these days without even realizing it.

Although the term “tin foil” is a clear reference to the metal, few people actually associate it with it. The aluminum lids on yogurt and cream pots, or the butter wrapped in aluminum paper, do not deter most consumers from buying them, nor do aluminum beverage cans, which are very popular and well-known, especially among young people.

If you take a closer look at the list of ingredients in these products, you will see that they often contain citric acid. The acid helps the aluminum dissolve more easily, allowing it to migrate into the food or drink much more quickly.

In addition to the foods and beverages mentioned, aluminum can also be found in toothpaste, deodorants, medicines, vaccines, and tap water.

As you can see, it is not difficult to load your body with aluminum on a regular basis.

Citric acid gets into the brain

Citric acid, like glutamate, is also able to break through the blood-brain barrier. Why this is so is explained by the fact that both citric acid and glutamate occur naturally in the body.

Why should the blood-brain barrier, whose job it is to prevent toxins and other harmful substances from entering the brain, prevent these endogenous substances from entering?

Citric acid is broken down in the brain with the help of a special enzyme. Therefore, the intake of citric acid is not initially problematic.

Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s caused by aluminum citrates?

However, it becomes really dangerous when the citric acid has combined with aluminum. Then this metal can of course also get into the brain together with the citric acid.

While the citric acid is broken down here, the aluminum remains and is stored there.

Aluminum has a highly toxic effect on nerve cells, causing devastating damage.

It is no coincidence that neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s are associated with aluminum, especially since elevated aluminum levels in the brain have repeatedly been found in the affected patients.

Citric Acid from Fruits

From a chemical point of view, the natural citric acid from fruits does not differ from a synthetically produced acid. Nevertheless, both acids are by no means comparable from a holistic point of view.

The citric acid contained in fruit does not enter the body in isolation but in its natural compound. In addition to citric acid, the fruit also provides many vitamins, minerals, and secondary plant substances that have a wealth of health-promoting effects.

An industrially produced citric acid, on the other hand, has none of the above. Instead, this is an isolated acid concentrate that is not conducive to health in any way. But on the contrary.

Don’t let that stop you from continuing to eat sun-ripened citrus. If you don’t take them to excess, you don’t have to worry about your health.

Avoid isolated citric acid

Regardless of all the facts described, citric acid is still considered a harmless food additive that is also approved for use in organically grown foods.

The use of citric acid is even permitted in baby food and baby teas, so you should read the list of ingredients very carefully.

It would be best if you generally avoided finished products and drinks that contain citric acid – for the sake of your health.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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