The history of food around the world is mostly a history of food preservation. Since the beginning of recorded history, cultures have struggled to find ways to preserve their foods. While salt was probably the first important preservative to be discovered, citric acid has been around almost as long – at least among cultures with citric fruits.
Today, citric acid is one of the most common and widely-used preservatives in the world, with the United States alone producing more than 1.6 million tons of it every year. How does citric acid work, and when is it appropriate as a food additive? Let’s take a look.
The Benefits of Citric Acid
Citric acid is a relatively weak acid, but it is one of the strongest acids which is entirely edible and non-harmful to humans. In fact, it’s naturally-occurring in most types of organic life – us included – although it is of course most common in the citric fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit.
This makes it a perfect choice for many kinds of food preservation. By increasing the acidity of the food, it is introduced into, it can greatly inhibit the growth of mold, mildew, bacteria, and other organic contaminants.
Beyond its primary use as a preservative, citric acid has numerous other uses in the food industry. It helps prevent ice cream from separating, as well as preventing crystallization in caramels. It’s also a common ingredient in effervescent products, when paired with sodium bicarbonate. It can even be used in food processing, as it is an effective chelating agent and can prevent contamination by metallic ions.
In cooking, citric acid can be used in virtually any recipe which calls for the addition of an acid and is often used as a milder-tasting substitute for other edible acids like vinegar. Some forms of simple cheese, like Indian paneer, can be created through the addition of citric acid to milk – or even just sufficient amounts of citric fruit juice.
The only major disadvantage to citric acid is that it does have a distinctive taste, as well as being relatively sour. It needs to be used with care, to derive its preservative effect without compromising the flavor of the food.
FBC Preserves Your Food and Your Business