What Is Citric Acid? How Pfizer And Mold Collided

Sometimes, the most common ingredients are the ones most people know very little about, and a prime example of this is citric acid.

By Nicole Dominique3 min read
shutterstock What Is Citric Acid? How Pfizer And Mold Collided

Even some of the most health-conscious individuals that have made it a habit to check labels overlook citric acid. When we see it on an ingredient list, it’s only natural for our minds to imagine refreshing and organic citrus fruits like lemons, limes, or oranges. And while citric acid is a naturally occurring compound found in most fruits and vegetables, the citric acid that most people consume today is actually made inorganically. 

In fact, citric acid, which you can find in almost everything – from snacks to condiments, drinks, cleaning agents, and even pharmaceutical drugs – is a manufactured and mass-produced acid that’s a derivative of another substance that most people actually try to avoid: mold. 

The History of Citric Acid 

Leave your onion out in a moist area for a day or two, and you’ll find it covered in dark spots called Aspergillus niger, the same mold that citric acid is made from. And we have Pfizer, a chemical company that eventually turned into the pharmaceutical giant we know today, to thank. 

Citric acid was originally isolated from fruits like lemons and limes.

From the 1880s, Pfizer has produced citric acid, which at the time was isolated from fruits that were imported from Italy. It was used as a preservative and flavoring agent for foods and beverages. Unfortunately, the process of extracting citric acid from organic sources was too expensive, and with World War I negatively interfering with supplies, it was only natural for Pfizer to invest in research to find alternative ways to produce it. 

In 1893, a botanist named C. Wehmer had discovered the production of citric acid with the use of Penicillium mold and sugar. But on a commercial scale, this process was still unsuccessful. That is, until 1916 when Pfizer hired food chemist James Currie to find a more efficient way to produce citric acid that would successfully industrialize the ingredient. He went on to discover the production of citric acid via fermentation from the mold Aspergillus niger and the use of sugar. Thanks to Currie’s discovery, Pfizer opened a pilot plant two years later that used his methods, which went on to outpace the production of citric acid from lemons and limes. By 1919, Pfizer successfully reduced the price of citric from $1.25 a pound to only 20 cents. 

The Billion Dollar Industry 

Today, citric acid is still widely used in foods to preserve shelf life, prevent spoilage, and add flavor to beverages and other items. Besides consumables, you can find it in drugs, cosmetics, and even personal care products. It's used worldwide, and even with countries experiencing a Covid-19 recession, the industry itself has been projected to reach a whopping 3.9 billion dollars by 2024. Currently, citric acid is made in many countries including the U.S. and Europe. But China is its biggest producer, accounting for 60% of global production.

Citric acid is a popular ingredient found in many disinfectants and sanitizers. 

But one might wonder how the citric acid market could possibly thrive in a pandemic where other businesses struggled. The answer is simple: citric acid is a popular ingredient found in many disinfectants and sanitizers. Even the United States Environmental Protection Agency lists citric acid as “safe” and recommends it as a cleaning agent. Yet, this is the same agency that has approved of fluoride in drinking water, thereby causing several organizations and individuals to sue the agency for neglecting the neurological harm fluoride has been studied to have on people, including children. Funny how it seems like these government agencies have a tendency to benefit manufacturers instead of the consumers they're claiming to protect.

Is Citric Acid or Aspergillus Niger Safe To Consume?

It’s important to know that Aspergillus is a mold that has many strains, with Aspergillus niger being the most common. It’s been stated in numerous studies that this strain in particular is the least likely to cause diseases, but when breathed in, it can cause allergic reactions. Further, Aspergillus niger has been found to have harmful effects on at-risk individuals (asthma, for example) and even in patients who were infected with Covid. 

Despite the many articles and studies that have found citric acid to be safe, there have been reports of reactions from individuals who were either allergic or intolerant to Aspergillus niger. There is also one study in particular that reported muscular, stomach, and joint pain as well as shortness of breath in individuals consuming items containing citric acid. Many drinks that contain the additive can also cause erosion to tooth enamel.  

There are no studies that can prove the safety of citric acid when consumed in large amounts for a long period of time.

It's worth remembering that there are no studies that can prove the safety of citric acid when consumed in large amounts for a long period of time, which is exactly what the majority of people are doing. That's right – there isn't anything that can really prove its safety after consuming it for decades, or any study on the long-term effects of citric acid being absorbed through the skin from cosmetics or personal care items. This begs me to ask: in a society where corporations are known to fund the research in order to benefit sales, can we really trust every headline and article that has determined citric acid to be safe? We may never find the answer, but I hope that it isn’t too late when we do. 

Closing Thoughts

We often give a pass to the additives and ingredients that we see the most on our favorite snacks and beverages, especially the ones that seem to disguise themselves as natural. That's why it's important for us to remain inquisitive and curious, even about the things that are widely accepted. When you think about it, the most “normal” things have only turned out that way because we've gone about our existence without having questioned where it came from or what it truly does. We just accept away, trusting the outcome, thinking that if everyone is taking part then it must be safe. But if we did the opposite and consciously acted instead of following others, the result would probably be a group of empowered individuals. But let's be honest, agencies and companies probably prefer the former.

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