Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Citric Acid

As I mentioned before, I treat my ingredients like a cook rather than a food producer. Yet when you get into food production, as I have been doing while expanding my Small Hand Foods syrup line, there are a few scientific things you must pay attention to.

Ph values are the level of acidity in a product. If you are going to seal anything in a jar or bottle, one of the ways to make it safe is to insure that the ph is 4.5 or lower. Botulism (botulinum toxin) thrives in a low-acid, oxygen-free environment. Once you expose a food product to oxygen, say, by taking a jar of jam off your shelf and opening it, keeping it refrigerated after opening prevents other bacteria from getting in there. All of this science must be applied when creating a new food product that you intend to bottle.

But food production folk are a funny lot. They know how to keep food safe, but they aren't chefs. They want everything super scientific. I needed to lower the ph of my gum syrup to make it safe to bottle. And every single person I encountered told me to use citric acid. They said that citric acid is essentially concentrated lemon juice. So I bought some and tried it.

I don't care what people say; citric acid is nothing at all like lemon juice. If you have access to it, mix a little in some water and taste it. Does it taste like lemon juice? Not even remotely. It tastes acrid and bitter with a dry, metallic aftertaste. Like nibbling on an unripe lime, with its peel, dipped in metal shavings and wrapped in brown paper. Quite frankly, I don't want that in my syrup.

Actual lemon juice, contrary to what the food scientists say, contains citric acid, yes, but also malic, tartaric and oxalic acids, plus sugar, fiber and a trace of protein. And vitamins and minerals. Using lemon juice as an ingredient adds so much more than just a ph reducer. And adding enough to a bottle of gum syrup to make it safe adds less than a teaspoon per bottle: a couple drops per drink. In exchange I get the safety of the acidity without the metallic, bitter taste. It's a fair exchange to me.

I've begun to look more closely at product labels and am stunned by the number of edibles that use citric acid. Out of all the varieties of hummus now sold at Trader Joe's, only one uses actual lemon juice rather than citric acid. There are also so many products that seem to me to unnecessarily use an acidifier. Flavored syrups like Rose's or Torani add citric acid because there is no actual juice in them, therefore nothing to bring the ph down to safe levels. But fruit juice is already acidic; I can't see any purpose in adding citric acid to a drink or syrup already containing fruit juice. Yet there they are.

I do not claim that there is anything unhealthy or dangerous with citric acid. It is typically derived from lemon pith, although through a fairly refined process. My bias here is about flavor, and that I prefer to drink the way I eat, with a concentration on whole, real foods. In addition, to me lemon juice just tastes better. So that's what I choose to put into my syrups. Food scientists be damned.