When you think citric acid what comes to mind? I will tell you I always thought it came from citrus and it does naturally BUT it is a costly process to produce
especially with so much demand for citric acid in preservation. Plus there isn't enough supply of citrus fruits to make all that is being used. It's use has exponentially happened with the cheaper, faster capability to produce larger quantities and the moving of products all over the world and the need to preserve and make longer shelf stable products. So a century old process of creating it from a mold called aspergillus niger had to undergo many changes.
I would wager to say All but I will go with most of the citric acid found in commercial foods, beverages, dietary supplements and the spices in your cabinet today is not created by citrus. It is a powder made from the fermentation of sugar that is being fed to a mold. The resulting substances are processed and a synthetic manufactured citric acid created. Have you ever seen the black mold on an onion or shallot? That is aspergillus niger the mold used in this process.
A culture of Aspergillus niger is fed with sugar and it metabolizes it into a liquid solution. The solution is mixed with slaked lime (commonly used in pickling) which causes a citrate salt to come out of the process. The citrate salt is then treated with sulfuric acid to make it a useable citric acid. This process was created nearly a century ago to produce a citric acid. And although the process was realized so long ago, there have been changes in the ingredients used to create this process due to the need for so much demand in commercial productions.
The sugars that are used for the citric acid can be derived from cane sugar, corn or wheat. But most citric acid today is most often derived from corn (GMO) as a highly processed corn syrup since it is cheap and the corn is a subsidized crop.
The FDA placed manufactured citric acid (MCA) under the category of GRAS (generally recognized as safe) due to its longstanding use in food without any specific research to substantiate this claim from what I have read. Even though it is true it has been used in food preservation since its discovery almost a century ago, the manufacturing has undergone a lot of significant changes to make it so widely available.
Due to the increased need for citric acid over the past several decades, there have been significant genetic modifications of Aspergillus niger to increase MCA production and decrease production of unwanted byproducts. The two main types of modification include gamma radiation-induced mutagenesis to increase its fermentation activity and genetic modification in the laboratory to enhance the pathway to increase production of MCA. Plus today, nearly all MCA begins with highly processed glucose from corn syrup which is derived from genetically modified corn.
In 2016, 2.3 million tons of MCA was produced, predominantly in China, and at that time approximately 70% was used as a food, beverage, supplement or spice additive. There has been no scientific studies performed to evaluate the safety of MCA when ingested in substantial amounts and with chronic exposure.
In nature, aspergillus niger is often found growing on dead leaves, stored grain especially corn, compost piles, or in other decaying vegetation. Although most people are often exposed to aspergillus throughout their lives, when inhaled, its toxins may weaken the immune system and can cause sickness. Although it is mostly a concern for those whose immune systems are already weakened or those who have existing fungal allergies.
In 2018, a study concluded given the pro-inflammatory nature of aspergillus niger even when killed by heat, repeated ingestion of MCA may trigger sensitivity or allergic reactions in susceptible individuals. How does one avoid repeated use?
Over the last two decades, there has been a significant rise in the incidence of food allergies including respiratory symptoms, joint pain, irritable bowel symptoms, muscular pain and enervation (feeling tired or drained) following ingestion of foods, beverages or supplements containing MCA.
The study hypothesized that ingestion of the MCA may lead to a harmful inflammatory build up which can show up differently in different individuals based on their genetic predisposition and susceptibility. Thus their findings are that the use of MCA as an additive in consumable products should have further studies to verify it's safety.
So for us, we will continue to try to cook from scratch as much as possible, use our spices freshly ground with no citric acid, anti caking agents or other fillers added and look at our food labels on products we do buy. It isn't realistic that manufactured citric acid from mold would be wholly unavoidable in this day and age, but due to our own history of inflammation and food allergies, we will at least try to limit it's consumption.
Did you learn something new with this? Let us know your thoughts?