Citric acid is found naturally in citrus fruits, especially lemons and limes. It’s what gives them their tart, sour taste.
A manufactured form of citric acid is commonly used as an additive in food, cleaning agents, and nutritional supplements.
However, this manufactured form differs from what’s found naturally in citrus fruits.
For this reason, you may wonder whether it’s good or bad for you.
This article explains the differences between natural and manufactured citric acid, and explores its benefits, uses, and safety.
Citric acid was first derived from lemon juice by a Swedish researcher in 1784 (1).
The odorless and colorless compound was produced from lemon juice until the early 1900s when researchers discovered that it could also be made from the black mold, Aspergillus niger, which creates citric acid when it feeds on sugar (1, 2).
Because of its acidic, sour-tasting nature, citric acid is predominantly used as a flavoring and preserving agent — especially in soft drinks and candies.
It’s also used to stabilize or preserve medicines and as a disinfectant against viruses and bacteria.
SUMMARYCitric acid is a compound originally derived from lemon juice. It’s produced today from a specific type of mold and used in a variety of applications.
Citrus fruits and their juices are the best natural sources of citric acid (3).
In fact, the word citric originates from the Latin word citrus (2).
Examples of citrus fruits include:
Other fruits also contain citric acid but in lesser amounts. These include:
Beverages or food products that contain these fruits — such as ketchup in the case of tomatoes — also contain citric acid.
While not naturally occurring, citric acid is also a byproduct of cheese, wine, and sourdough bread production.
The citric acid listed in the ingredients of foods and supplements is manufactured — not what’s naturally found in citrus fruits (4).
This is because producing this additive from citrus fruits is too expensive and the demand far exceeds the supply.
SUMMARYLemons, limes, and other citrus fruits are the predominant natural sources of citric acid. Other fruits that contain much less include certain berries, cherries, and tomatoes.
The characteristics of citric acid make it an important additive for a variety of industries.
Food and beverages use an estimated 70% of manufactured citric acid, pharmaceutical and dietary supplements use 20%, and the remaining 10% goes into cleaning agents (4).
Manufactured citric acid is one of the most common food additives in the world.
It’s used to boost acidity, enhance flavor, and preserve ingredients (5).
Sodas, juices, powdered beverages, candies, frozen foods, and some dairy products often contain manufactured citric acid.
It’s also added to canned fruits and vegetables to protect against botulism, a rare but serious illness caused by the toxin-producing Clostridium botulinum bacteria.
Medicines and Dietary Supplements
Citric acid is an industrial staple in medicines and dietary supplements.
It’s added to medicines to help stabilize and preserve the active ingredients and used to enhance or mask the taste of chewable and syrup-based medications (6).
Mineral supplements, such as magnesium and calcium, may contain citric acid — in the form of citrate — as well to enhance absorption.
Disinfecting and Cleaning
Citric acid is a useful disinfectant against a variety of bacteria and viruses (7, 8, 9).
A test-tube study showed that it may be effective in treating or preventing human norovirus, a leading cause of foodborne illness (10).
Citric acid is commercially sold as a general disinfectant and cleaning agent for removing soap scum, hard water stains, lime, and rust.
It’s viewed as a safer alternative to conventional disinfectant and cleaning products, such as quat and chlorine bleach (1).