It seems like just yesterday that dietary fat was public enemy number one. Since then, many so-called foodie foes have come and gone, from sugar and carbs to lectin. But the latest food ingredient to cause a stir in the wellness world is one you’ve probably never heard of but have almost definitely consumed. Citric acid is one of the most common food preservatives and flavouring additives and depending on who you ask, it’s bad news.
You’ll find citric acid in everything from wine and beer to fruit and vegetables, meat products and hummus and even beauty and household cleaning products. It’s normally used to extend the shelf-life of products or add a slightly sour flavouring. The compound is naturally occurring in some vegetables and citrus fruits.
However, there’s also a version of the product that is created by scientists in the lab from black mould. Yep, pretty gross! But before you dump out anything in your fridge labelled ‘citric acid,’ let’s distinguish more between the two types.
The good type of citric acid
The organic, naturally-occurring type citric acid actually has a range of health benefits. It actually works as an antioxidant, protecting the body from free radical damage. Getting enough antioxidants has been found to reduce your risk of many different illnesses and diseases.
Ironically, citric acid is also an alkalizing agent which can help reduce acidity in the body. You can find out more about why this might be a good thing here — but essentially, it helps to re-balance your body so it can work more efficiently.
The bad type of citric acid
Then, there’s the dodgy kind of citric acid — the one that has some wellness gurus clutching their pearls. This is produced by adding certain sugars, like cornstarch and sugar beets, to the fungus Aspergillus niger(a common black mould). Ultimately, the black mould is filtered out, but some people believe the mycotoxins (microscopic waste products left behind by the fungus) aren’t entirely eliminated.
Maria Vila, an integrative doctor at the Chambers Centre of Well Being, says exposure to mycotoxins could lead to respiratory problems, chronic fatigue, allergies and other health issues. She also warns that they could also lead to irritation or excaberate asthma symptoms when found in beauty and cleaning products.
There’s also the fact that the sugar added to the mould to make citric acid comes primarily from beets and corn, which are among the most commonly produced genetically modified organisms (GMOs). So, if you’re trying to avoid these, Maria says it’s worth checking the ingredients list on any packaged foods or supplements or vitamins for citric acid.
Obviously, this is kind of offputting. But is it actually dangerous to our health? There’s currently not enough scientific evidence to confirm whether mycotoxins do actually end up in the final product — and therefore, whether there’s a health risk. However, limiting the amount of heavily processed food in your diet while upping your dose of the good kind of citric acid via fresh lemon and lime is always going to be a good idea.