Is Citric Acid Safe?

Citric acid is probably not an ingredient you would typically of think of as one to avoid, I certainly didn’t. Citric acid can be derived totally naturally from lemons, limes and other citrus fruits. It’s a weak acid that makes a great cleaner, has amazing preservative qualities, and health benefits, but only when it’s derived 100% naturally from fruits.

Where else does it come from?

Would you believe me if I told you that scientists have trained black mold (aspergillus niger) to break down crude sugars such as molasses and corn starch into citric acid? Well they have and it’s so much more efficient and cost effective than extracting it from lemons.

Now that you know that I’m sure you can guess that almost all the citric acid used in products today is produced by mold in a process called microbial fermentation. I say almost all, only because (according to google) there is still one place in Mexico where natural citric acid is fairly common. Unfortunately it’s near impossible to find anywhere else in the world. The good news is it isn’t very hard to make at home.

We’ve tried asking quite a few companies, including national ingredient companies and so far we can’t find one that doesn’t use microbial fermentation to produce their citric acid. Some of them we didn’t have to ask because the company had answered publicly on a Q&A or FAQ page. The only difference we found between companies claiming to make a natural product and those openly acknowledging their product is made with black mold is that supposed ‘natural’ products were produced by using Aspergillus niger to break down lemon peel or other citrus fruit peels into citric acid.

Okay, but they’re using fruit; so what’s the problem?

There have been very few studies done on the safety of citric acid produced from black mold, but their is enough evidence to suggest that the citric acid produced from black mold is inflammatory, causes skin irritation, can cause respiratory irritation, and allergic reactions. Naturally produced citric acid does not cause these same issues and that has led many to the conclusion that there is a high likelihood of mold spores or other bi products remaining from the manufacturing process.

What’s our safety conclusions?

The mass produced citric acid that’s in every grocery store product is almost certainly bad for your health, the sad reality though is that it’s impossible to avoid every single toxin. Because of how common citric acid is, it’ll really cut down your options if you start avoiding this ingredient, but the exposure to black mold might just make it worth while especially you have respiratory issues already. Also keep in mind that even if truly natural citric acid can’t purchased, it can be made at home fairly easily (without using any mold). If you’re buying from a small business and notice they are using citric acid, it wouldn’t hurt to ask if they make it themselves or if they buy it.

If they do buy it, definitely ask who they buy it from and then check with the manufacturer if it’s made through microbial fermentation. We checked Now, Pure, Simple Earth, Microganics, and several others, but all of them use microbial fermentation and none are willing answer directly about whether they use black mold or some other form of mold in that process. So I feel pretty confident in saying I wouldn’t recommend using any citric acid product that was purchased rather than made at home. 

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