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Citric Acid: Friend or Foe?

Citric Acid is one of those things you don’t think about a whole lot. As the name suggests, you find it in citrus fruit, and if you preserve your own fruit through drying or canning, and you might even have a bag of citric acid in your pantry. It’s also an additive in many foods and beverages. But the stuff added to our drinks and prepared or processed foods is not the citric acid you think of as derived from limes and lemons; it’s actually manufactured.

Food companies are not required to list whether citric acid is manufactured or procured through natural sources in their ingredient list. Why am I bringing this up? Lately I read a Toxicology Report article on the National Institute of Health’s website (I know how to party!) and it turns out a lot of people are discovering their bodies react very badly to the manufactured variety of citric acid (which I’ll refer to as MCA). Many people developed symptoms I’m familiar with: joint and muscle pain, chronic fatigue, systemic inflammation and irritable bowel symptoms, all within hours of ingesting MCA. Here’s why I started paying attention…

In 1917 James Currie, a food chemist in America, experimented with a process of making citric acid from mold. He discovered by fermenting Aspergillus niger (a type of black mold) and cheap molasses he could produce inexpensive citric acid. Pfizer picked it up in 1919 and began producing it, and this is the method still used today, although China is now the main producer and corn syrup is used instead of molasses.

The chemical formula for MCA is the same as that for naturally derived citric acid, but the concern is in the potential for impurities from the process involving Aspergillus niger. No real research has been done on the effects it has on the human body, but scientific communities are starting to report possible inflammatory reactions. This makes sense when you consider how many folks are allergic to mold and mold spores. Aspergillus niger contains several toxins and if inhaled can cause asthma, allergic reactions, pneumonia – even if the spores are killed (at high temperatures) and all that is left are tiny fragments. By ingesting these bits via MCA in our food, drinks, medicines and cosmetics, we may be subjecting ourselves to a low grade inflammatory response leading to long-term damage.

So, as of now there’s no conclusive evidence of the connection between MCA and negative physical responses like chronic fatigue, pain, inflammation and IBS. But if you struggle with these things, try checking out the ingredients of everything you eat and look for things with citric acid high on the list – and then take them out of your diet for a week. See how you feel, and then try adding them back in. Take them back out again and see what happens. I started doing this and am amazed at the improvement in my own life after cutting out MCA. Food for thought, right?