Citric Acid: An Ancient Souring Agent And Preservative

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Citric acid was discovered around the 8th century. According to historians, its discoverer was the Persian alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan. It would not be isolated until 1794 when a Swedish chemist named Carl Wilhelm Scheele discovered how to isolate citric acid from lemon juice. Scheele was the first to isolate a variety of acids, including tartaric acid. In 1890, the Italian citrus industry would become the basis of industrial-scale citric acid production.

The next big milestone in citric acid history occurred in 1893 and would come as a result of C. Wehmer’s discovery that Penicillium mold could be used to make citric acid from sugar.

In 1917, an American food chemist name James Currie would find out that another mold called Aspergillus niger could produce citric acid efficiently. His discovery was the foundation of modern industrial citric acid production and is still in use today. The mold cultures are fed on a medium containing glucose. Sources of the glucose include molasses and hydrolyzed corn starch.

Citric acid flavor profile

Citric acid gives food a sharp, sour taste similar to the taste that sours citrus fruits give. That sourness can help to give sweet foods and beverages a fruitier flavor by balancing their sweetness, similar to the role of lemon juice in lemonade. Citric acid is also used in place of salt in some recipes and you may see it referred to as sour salt in some of them. It does not have a salty flavor, but its effect on the tongue can still make it an effective substitute.

Health benefits of citric acid

Citric acid is not a source of any major nutrients, but it can help to treat or prevent the following health issues:

  • Kidney stones: Citric acid helps to prevent the formation of kidney stones in that it helps to prevent the stones from forming in the first place while also breaking up smaller stones as they start to form. The higher the concentration of citric acid in your urine, the less likely you are to form new stones. It prevents the formation of these stones by coating the particles, which prevents new material from being joined to them. The result is that they do not grow in size.
  • Damage from free radicals: The citric acid in lemon juice is what keeps chopped apples from browning. It does this because it is an antioxidant that stops the oxidizing process that results in browning. Oxidization is also what makes fats rancid and causes proteins to break down. Antioxidants like citric acid are beneficial for health due to their ability to combat damage from free radicals, which are molecules that harm the structures of cells. Free radicals are products of your metabolism, which mean that your body is constantly making them. Your body would be overwhelmed with them were it not for citric acid and other antioxidants.
  • Mineral deficiencies: Citric acid helps to facilitate the absorption of minerals including iron.

Common uses of citric acid

The most common use of citric acid is as a preservative. many people use citric acid in canning as its added acidity can help to kill bacteria and ensure a longer shelf life for preserved foods. Along with preventing spoilage, citric acid also prevents discoloration.

Other common applications include homemade and commercially made beverages where it is the source of acidity. Citric acid is also used for its flavor in traditional recipes for the Eastern European beetroot soup known as borscht.