From the sweetest candy to the sourest citrus fruit, citric acid is a food additive that is more prevalent in our diets than most people realize.
If you have ever read the ingredients list on a soda bottle, you have probably noticed that “citric acid” appears in nearly all sodas. Knowing this, you would probably think that citric acid is unhealthy – but is it really bad for our bodies? Citric acid is a food additive that is used in candy, soft drinks, ice cream, sherbets, jams, gummy bears, and other treats as a tart flavoring. It is sometimes added because of its antioxidant-like qualities; other times it is added to foods that just need that extra ‘flavor boost’. It is also commonly used as a preservative in many beverages. Citric acid plays different roles in different foods. For example, in ice cream, it is added to prevent the fats from separating; meanwhile, in caramel, it is added to prevent sucrose from crystallizing. Of course, industries create citric acid artificially; however, it is a natural food additive as well. Citric acid can be found naturally in lemon, limes, and many other citrus fruits.
So what exactly do food additives do? Well, different food additives are used for different purposes. They can enhance tastes and appearances, or preserve the flavors of certain ingredients (find more information regarding other common food additives and their uses here). Specifically, acids are added to foods mainly in order to make the flavor of the food “sharper”, while simultaneously acting as a preservative and an antioxidant. Citric acid is a weaker acid that is one of the most common food additives that can be used in a very wide variety of foods. For example, in mozzarella cheese, citric acid is used as a ripening agent, while in colas, it can be used to add some extra fizz.
Citric acid is listed among the ingredients for the food products in which it is a food additive in. It is listed here as an ingredient on the label of a bottle of Sprite.
Contrary to popular belief, citric acid is actually one of the few good food additives. Believe it or not, the human body produces its own citric acid from the Citric Acid Cycle, which is created in all of the metabolic reactions that go on in the body – and in huge amounts too! Nearly two kilograms of citric acid is made in our bodies every day; then it is metabolized quickly. The sum of all the reactions that take place in the citric acid cycle come out to be Acetyl-CoA + 3 NAD+ + Q + GDP + Pi + 3 H2O → CoA-SH + 3 NADH + 3 H+ + QH2 + GTP + 2 CO2. As you can see, this is a very complicated chemical equation. But this process can be explained in much simpler terms: the citric acid cycle itself is a series of chemical reactions that generates chemical energy in the form of ATP. It is an essential part of the cellular respiration process, a process which every living organism on the planet has to go through in order to survive. So technically, citric acid is essential to our survival because it generates ATP in our bodies, which is a form of energy (Click here for more information about the citric acid cycle).
It is almost misleading to consider the terminology regarding food additives such as citric acid. The formal chemical name for citric acid is 3-carboxy-3-hydroxypentanedioic acid– a mouthful to say. You would not find that name among the ingredients list of your favorite tub of ice cream, but instead by its more familiar name, citric acid. Nevertheless, regardless of what it is called, citric acid typically has negative connotations as its commonly known function is as a food additive to common food products. Not to mention, it can also be bought in powder form in grocery stores! It is commonly found in small shakers – similar to how salt and pepper is stored – where it is called “sour salt” in food and health stores among dietary supplements and vitamins. But as has been explained , citric acid not only enhances the flavor in our favorite foods, but is also constantly being naturally synthesized in the human body every day. Thus proves food additives such as citric acid need not always be looked down upon because of its tendency to artificially alter food we consume every day, but instead embraced once one becomes aware of the completely natural chemistry behind its processes.