If common ingredients like “citric acid” and “ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)” sound normal and familiar enough that you practically conjure up an image of the flourishing orchard they were grown in – then think again.
Picture instead an industrial factory, carrying out protocols developed in a lab, produced with enough winding nozzles, tanks, valves, pipes and other thinga-ma-jiggers to create a meandering and disorienting Dr. Seuss story. Because, after all, these common –nearly ubiquitous – ingredients don’t come from where you might assume (i.e. simply, citrus fruits).
Instead, mass produced citric acid and ascorbic acid are hidden GMO ingredients that reportedly set off allergenic responses for some sensitive consumers. Further, both are known accomplices to the creation of benzene – a known human carcinogen – inside food and drink products alongside sodium benzoate.
Feel free to peruse these blogs and forums for complaints about citric acid from those allergic or intolerant to citric acid itself, mold & yeast and/or corn. Food intolerance to citric acid, or the components of its production, can trigger such symptoms as: stomach pain, reactions in the mouth, headaches, diarrhea, vomiting, cramping, hives, dark circles under the eye and/or blotchy skin.
Nevertheless, most people are not allergic to citric acid, and have no identifiable negative effects from eating it. But it does serve as a poignant reminder that what we eat comes from food products – constructed as if from tinker toys, with multiple, highly processed ingredients that virtually no one would recognize and few know anything about.
Otto Von Bismarck famously quipped back in the 1800s that “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” But today there is an endless array of foods that would baffle or disgust consumers if they saw them made. Industrial food processes have rendered entire grocery stores filled with food products whose ingredients would be even less recognizable than the contents of sausage.
Citric acid: in practically everything on the shelf
Citric acid is common enough to find in foods of virtually every kind, due to its use as a preservative – extending shelf life and preventing spoilage – as well as to enhance flavor with its acidic and slightly sour taste, which gives all manner of “natural”-ish and completely artificial foods and beverages a “refreshing” kick.Despite being a known hidden GMO, it is even frequently found in certified “Organic” foods – and the USDA and FDA allow it to be in there.
Citric acid isn’t becoming a controversial foodie’s food-to-avoid, but instead trending for its ability to bring out the pucker-inducing and tangy tastes in popular foods. It is increasingly celebrated for helping to bring a balance of “all five flavors” to countless restaurant dishes and prepackaged processed foods – indispensable to even celebrity and TV contestant chefs.
Like MSG, the widely used ingredient that enhances ‘savory’ flavors and induces cravings, citric acid is widely used not only as a preservative but as a “fairy dust of flavour amplification” by enhancing and intensifying other flavors present in the recipe.
MSG and citric acid are essentially enablers to modern America’s food frenzy addiction – making even bland foods not just palatable and tasty, but downright delectable and captivating. With so many ingredients raising red flags, piling on sugar, synthetic chemicals and calories while contributing to obesity, diabetes, heart conditions and even cancer – MSG, citric acid and their peers make manufactured food products possible.
Both are used industrially to make even bland foods taste better and last longer on the shelf, regardless of nutritional value. But like many other common food additives, the science behind their production would probably take away from their (artificial) palate appeal.
Manufacturers and distributors of citric acid – as well as the larger food industry who use it as an ingredient in practically everything – benefit from the public’s assumption that citric acid comes from fruit. While this natural appeal is frequently used in food marketing and product imagery (as this chemical manufacturer clearly does), the reality of large scale, mass production of citric acid bears little to no resemblance.
- Ignorance-based marketing: This chemical company uses the “fresh” image of citrus fruit to market its citric acid – with no mention that it is most likely derived from genetically modified black mold grown on GMO corn syrup.
As the Globe and Mail succinctly puts it:
Citric acid occurs naturally in such fruits as limes, pineapples and gooseberries. The dry, powdered citric acid used as an industrial food additive since the early 19th century, however has a less appetizing source; it is manufactured using a mould that feeds on corn syrup glucose.
Citric acid does in fact occur naturally in citrus fruits like lemons, oranges, grapefruits in significant quantities… in fact, as a product of the Kreb’s Cycle, it is present in most living things. But industry would find it simply too costly and… well, simple to derive their preservative ingredient that way.
Actually, a cornered citrus market was already making this form of citric acid too expensive by the mid-to-late 19th century, making an alternative economically desirable even then. Authors Michael Mattey and Bjorn Kristiansen argue in their introduction to Citric Acid Biotechnology that “the science, though important, is secondary to the economics and politics of production” of citric acid.
Instead, since the early 1900s, the black mold Aspergillus niger has been used to ferment starches to derive citric acid. In 1893, a chemist named C. Wehmer discovered that citric acid could be produced with penicillium mold and sugar. Wartime disruptions in the Italian citric acid market paved the way for full-scale industrial production, after a food chemist named James Currie discovered that Aspergillus niger was even more efficient at producing citric acid. Currie also developed new methods for fermentation, and Pfizer hired him and launched a plant in 1917 to mass produce citric acid grown from mold in a sugar medium. Currie’s methods were also used by Pfizer to drastically increased the production of penicillin, credited with saving countless lives.
Today, it is not only true that nearly all citric acid is made through mold fermentation with GMO corn, but that it is produced by some of the biggest of Big Ag food producers, both in the U.S. and in China.
The three biggest domestic producers of citric acid – Archer Daniels Midland,Cargill and Tate & Lyle Americas (actually a British company) – have been recently involved in suits over import duties and trade turf against Chinese firms, including Shandong TTCA Biochemistry, battling for market share in America.
Think of all the times citric acid shows up on the ingredients label in things that you or those you love eat. We already know it isn’t as simple as squeezing a lemon or lime, but what the hell is it, anyway?