Ascorbic Acid and Its Use in Food

Description, Production, Uses, and Benefits

Green smoothie next to avocado, greens, apple and banana

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Ascorbic acid is a chemical compound (C6H8O6) that is commonly found in nature and can be used as an antioxidant food additive. It acts as a vitamer of Vitamin C, which means it is a compound that provides the same vitamin activity as Vitamin C. Often, there are several compounds that produce the same activity of one vitamin and they are often called by that vitamin's name. For that reason, you may find ascorbic acid listed as Vitamin C on an ingredient label (Vitamin C is the generic term, ascorbic acid is the chemical name).

Ascorbic acid is found in nature in many fruits and vegetables and is produced by the kidney of some animals. Humans are not able to produce ascorbic acid and must obtain it from the diet, or else they will develop a deficiency and, in more severe cases, scurvy. Industrially, ascorbic acid is produced through a multistep process involving bacteria that reduce glucose and produce ascorbic acid as a byproduct. 

Ascorbic acid can be used in a variety of forms, including salts and esters. In these forms, it will appear on ingredient lists under different names, such as sodium ascorbate, calcium ascorbate, potassium ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate, or ascorbyl stearate.

How Ascorbic Acid Is Used in Food

Ascorbic acid is used primarily as an antioxidant, which can provide multiple benefits to food products. Slowing the oxidation preserves color and freshness. The low pH of ascorbic acid can help prevent microbial growth, thereby preventing spoilage and preserving freshness. For these reasons, ascorbic acid is a popular natural ingredient preservative. It can be used as a preservative in a vast array of food products, including bread, cured meats, jams and jellies, and other sauces and spreads.

The Vitamin C properties of ascorbic acid make it an excellent ingredient for vitamin supplementation. Simply adding ascorbic acid to food increases the Vitamin C content. Since naturally occurring Vitamin C is easily destroyed, many foods are fortified with ascorbic acid to replenish the Vitamin C content. Ascorbic acid is often added to fruit juices, dried fruit, cereal, and other snack foods for this purpose.

The flavor of ascorbic acid shouldn't be overlooked. Like any acid, it provides a nice tart flavor that enhances many food products. Candies, jams, jellies, and fruit juices often benefit from this burst of acidity that gives the consumer the distinct impression of fresh fruit.

How Ascorbic Acid Affects You

When added to food, ascorbic acid provides all of the benefits of Vitamin C. Negative side effects are not known to occur, except at exceptionally high dosages that far exceed what is used in food products.