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.
How Citric Acid is Synthesized from Genetically Modified Black Mold
Citric acid production has become a refined and highly prized industrial process. Numerous scientific studies discuss revisions and improvements to the efficiency. But there are definitely some constants to this often competitive and secretive process:
– Engineering the mold: Aspergillus niger is a naturally occurring black mold that commonly appears on fruits and vegetables, as pictured on the onion above (source: S.K. Mohan, Creative Commons license). However, significant modification of A. niger has taken place over the past several decades to increase production of citric acid and decrease the production of unwanted byproducts. This has resulted in countless generations of genetically modified mutant variants, now specialized for industrial-scale economics. Two of the main types of modification are:
• Gamma radiation has been used to modify strains of A. niger mutants, resulting in multiplied or increased production through genetic improvement.
• Further genetic modification in the lab has taken place through the engineering of the glycolytic pathway, resulting in a metabolic-streamlining that facilitates greater citric acid production from sugar, while shutting off side avenues ofglycolysis.
Further genetic modification and “improvement” of A. niger are an object of ongoing study and industrial practice.
– Producing the Sugar Medium: Nearly all industrial citric acid begins with a highly processed glucose corn syrup that is derived from corn wet milling (other parts of the corn residues go to other processes). Other industrial sources include beet sugar and cane molasses, and occasionally also fruit waste.
But it’s hard to beat the economics of subsidized corn – the vast majority of which is the unlabeled, genetically modified, high starch (yellow dent #2) variety – that can synergistically contribute to ingredients like citric acid as well as ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, dextrose (corn sugar), maltodextrin, corn oil, corn meal, ascorbic acid (labeled as Vitamin C), MSG and other free glutamates (such as ‘hydrolyzed vegetable protein’), malic acid, baking powder, vanilla, xantham gum and perhaps hundreds of others. Oftentimes, hydrochloric acid is employed in the corn-conversion process.
To transform corn or other plant starches into by-products that can be used to create these ingredients, some serious chemistry must be employed.
After wet milling corn to separate the starch, the production of many of these ingredients then involves a bath in strong bases, where lyes are used to break down the plant material further. Sometimes this means autolysis, when yeasts or bacteria ferment the material, and other times hydrolysis is used – which vary depending upon the type of additive, and the most efficient and cost effective established processes.
As with other common food ingredients, there is an ongoing issue with mercury cell technology – an outdated model still used in several major chlor-alkali plants – that have a known issue with mercury contamination during the application of caustic soda (to neutralize work with acids). Among hundreds of food ingredients that are potentially contaminated by mercury, studies show the three most common are high fructose corn syrup, sodium benzoate and, yep, citric acid.
A 2009 study published in Environmental Health analyzed the level of mercury contamination from the chlor-alkali process, resulting in numerous grabbing headlines warning about the mercury content in high fructose corn syrup. Although citric acid didn’t make the news, it too is processed in the same way:
Mercury cell chlor-alkali products are used to produce thousands of other products including food ingredients such as citric acid, sodium benzoate, and high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup is used in food products to enhance shelf life. A pilot study was conducted to determine if high fructose corn syrup contains mercury, a toxic metal historically used as an anti-microbial. High fructose corn syrup samples were collected from three different manufacturers and analyzed for total mercury. The samples were found to contain levels of mercury ranging from below a detection limit of 0.005 to 0.570 micrograms mercury per gram of high fructose corn syrup.
– Medium preparation: Various proprietary combinations of acids and heat areused to remove impurities and sterilize the corn syrup or other substrate, including: decationization (to alter the charge of ions), thermodynamic hexacyanoferrate clarification (pertaining to an ion exchange using an iron/cyanide compound) as well as boiling – that’s right, they use cyanide.
Meanwhile, the sugar substrate is diluted in preparation for fermentation.
– Inoculation, itself a complicated step: Through a careful process, the spores or cultures of the fermenting agent is introduced, mixed and multiplied. In nearly all current industrial processes, a genetically modified mutant strain ofAspergillus niger (black mold) is then used to ferment the corn sugar syrup into citric acid over the course of several days.