Is Citric Acid Bad For You?
Yes and no.
Natural citric acid is important to metabolize fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Citric acid is an effective aluminum detoxifier. (14) Juice from lemons and limes can preserve foods and keep them from oxidizing (for example: squeezing lime juice into your guacamole will prevent the avocado from turning brown).
The synthetic citric acid found in innumerable manufactured products, however, is another story.
The U.S. government’s database of chemicals lists the following hazards of citric acid (15):
- May be corrosive to metals
- Harmful if swallowed
- Causes skin
- May cause an allergic skin reaction
- Causes eye irritation
- May cause allergy or asthma symptoms or breathing difficulties if inhaled
- May cause genetic defects
- Suspected of causing genetic defects
- May cause cancer
- Suspected of causing cancer
- May damage fertility or the unborn child
- Causes damage to organs through prolonged or repeated exposure
- Very toxic to aquatic life
- Very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects
Specific Hazard of Citric Acid
Inhaling citric acid can cause respiratory constriction, resulting in coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, and upper respiratory system illness, including cumulative lung disease. Skin contact with citric acid can cause dermatitis. (16)
Additionally, eating too much citric acid inhibits the body’s absorption of calcium and iron. High concentrations of citric acid used in water treatment have been found a factor in bladder cancer. (17)
On the other hand, citrates used as medical coagulants can negatively interact with medications. If undergoing any medical procedure (including donating blood or dialysis), make sure to inform your health practitioner of any medications you are taking, including citrate. (18, 19)
Soft drinks contain the acid as a flavoring agent and preservative. One study showed that citric acid deteriorated tooth enamel within an hour of exposure. (20) At high concentrations, citric acid can cause immediate cell death within dental pulp. (21)
Perhaps lesser known still, is that citric acid can cause gastroesophageal reflux disease. Even some canned baby food contains citric acid, causing acid reflux in babies. You can find a list of tested baby foods here. (22)
Worse yet, processed foods often contain both citric acid, ascorbic acid, and sodium benzoate.The combination of either of the acids with the salt creates benzene, a known human carcinogen.
- do not take during pregnancy
- do not take if kidney, heart, or any other medical issues exist
- avoid if taking any other medications, including over-the-counter drugs and herbal remedies
- may cause upset stomach (23)
- allergic reactions like skin rash, itching or hives, swelling of the face, lips, or tongue
- bloody, black, tarry stools
- confused, dizzy, lightheaded, faint
- irregular heartbeat, chest pain
- numbness or tingling in hands or feet
- pain on swallowing
- stomach pain
- unusual bleeding or bruising
- unusually weak or tired
- loose stools
- nausea, vomiting (24)
Citric Acid Substitutes
There are valid, practical uses for citric acid and alternatives to synthetics or those made from mold do exist.
- You can buy non-GMO citric acid powder or citric acid crystals that originate from fermenting sugar rather than mold. Use it to flavor foods or regulate pH. (25)
- Cream of tartar is an acid (tartaric acid)—it’s what settles at the bottom of a wine barrel after aging wine. Sold in a powder, you can substitute 1 tablespoon of cream of tartar for ¾ tablespoon of citric acid in do-it-yourself beauty products.
- You can use lemon juice to replace citric acid, since it’s a natural source.
- 1 ounce of lemon juice for 1 ½ grams of citric acid
- 2 tablespoons of lemon juice for ½ teaspoon of powdered/crystal acid (for canning)
- 16 ounces of lemon juice mixed with 16 ounces of water equals 1 teaspoon of citric acid dissolved in a quart of water (for drying produce)
- 1/8 cup of lemon juice equals ½ teaspoon of acid (for making cheese)
Citric acid is remarkably useful in many contexts. The balance lies in its source and measure. Natural sources are always preferable to synthetics in terms of quality, reliability, bioavailability, and avoidance of potential adverse side effects.