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What Is Citric Acid, and Is It Harmful to Humans?

This food additive comes from black mold.


By Tehrene Firman, Prevention

There are a few basic rules to live by when you’re trying to eat a clean, nutritious diet: avoid sugar, always opt for whole grains instead of refined carbs, and try to limit as many food additives as possible by reducing your intake of processed foods. But when it comes to whether to ban citric acid or not, things get a little more complicated.
What is citric acid?

Citric acid is an organic acid found in citric fruits, but it's commonly used as a preservative in packaged foods and drinks, including hummus, wine, and salsa.

“The acid is found naturally in vegetables and fruits—most notably citrus fruits like lemons and limes,” says Amy Gorin, RDN, owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in New York City. “However, most of the citric acid that’s used as a food additive isn’t derived naturally from produce. Instead, it’s produced in a lab.”

Gorin says the citric acid in packaged food has been added for a variety of reasons. “It may be added to increase acidity, act as a preservative, or perform as an antioxidant,” she explains.


Is citric acid bad for you?

The lab-made citric acid has such a bad rap because it comes from an unlikely source: black mold, the stuff that shows up in areas where there is a lot of moisture, like your bathroom. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the black mold, in this case, is filtered from the final product, making it rare that any of it is left in the citric acid that's added to food.

“Medical experts have responded to these concerns and have acknowledged that rare reports of citric sensitivity do exist in medical literature, but it’s unlikely that the sensitivity is caused by mold,” Gorin says.

So, at least mold allergies from eating artificial citric acid doesn’t seem like anything to worry about—but are there any other health issues to take note of? Surprisingly, researchers have found proof that it won’t negatively impact your health.

And as for the citric acid that comes from fruits and veggies, it can actually be beneficial due to its antioxidant status. “Citric acid that’s found naturally can act as an antioxidant, which helps fight disease,” Gorin says.

In fact, some research suggests that citric acid, which can be found in tea, can kill harmful bacteria and may be used to treat body surface infections, which are common in older people, people with diabetes, and smokers.


The bottom line: You don't have to worry about citric acid in your foods

With that being said, there is one reason to watch your intake. “Consuming citric acid in excess can put you at risk for tooth erosion,” Gorin explains. “This would be a risk when consuming anything in excess that’s acidic, and that’s why it’s advised to eat acidic foods like citrus with water and to pair acidic foods with less acidic ones like nuts, cheese, brown rice, or even bananas.”

For now, citric acid—even the kind made from mold—doesn’t seem to be anything you should go to extreme measures to avoid. Until there’s definitive proof it should be kept off your plate, keep enjoying your hummus and carrots but maybe also focus on keeping some of the most well-known harmful additives—like high fructose corn syrup and MSG—out of your diet instead.
what is citric acid, is citric acid bad for you, natural food preservatives, food preservatives

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