Acidulants can enhance the flavours and sweetness of sugars and help food producers to achieve the required pH for their products. The intensity of sourness and ability to control pH varies from acidulant to acidulant. Whilst many serve the same role, functionality can vary.
So, what are the different types available? What are their various applications and, ultimately, which acidulant(s) do I need for my products?
Join our team of ingredients experts as we explore the acidulants ingredients category. Each acidulant we mention contains a link to the product page where even more information on uses and availability can be discovered.
Citric acid occurs naturally in a number of citrus fruits and is manufactured on a larger scale through fermentation. It is by far the most popular acidulant, with over half of all citric acid being used in beverages.
Food-grade citric acid provides a pronounced sharp, tart and refreshing taste that dissipates fairly quickly compared to other acidulants. It can provide a good balance to sweetness in drinks and teas.
This compound has a number of common uses within the food and beverage sector, thanks to its flavour enhancing and preservative properties. It helps to provide an optimum condition for desserts, jellies, and jams to set.
Malic acid is a great alternative to the use of citric acid. It has a persistent, pleasant tart flavour that pairs very well with sweeteners and can enhance fruit flavours. With good buffering properties, malic acid is able to resist changes in pH. It also can act as a colour enhancer.
The applications of both malic and citric acid are almost identical and, in nearly every case, you can use less malic acid for the same outcome. It’s a functional, cost-effective and versatile acidulant with wide-ranging applications. When produced commercially, it’s known as DL-malic acid.
It’s good for creating low-calorie foods and can also act as a colour enhancer. You can often find malic acid in carbonated drinks; the compound can help to deliver a sour taste and also act as a blender to provide a more natural flavour profile.
Acetic acid (also sometimes called ethanoic acid) is probably best known for being what gives vinegar its distinctive sour taste and pungent smell. Due to this intensive smell and taste, low concentration solutions are usually used for food production. Vinegar contains up to 18% acetic acid.
Food-grade acetic acid is able to lower the pH value of foods and is predominantly used as a natural preservative, pickler and acidity regulator.
Acetic acid can also be applied as a leavening (or raising) agent. When the acidulant meets alkaline ingredients (like baking powder), a reaction creates a gas that can increase the rise and puffiness of baked goods.
This acidulant provides the typical tangy ‘bite’ that you associate with fizzy drinks like cola. The food-grade version is a colourless acid, providing a very strong acid taste in small concentrations.
Like many other acidulants, it can help to limit the growth of mould and bacteria by offering pH control properties. Along with citric acid, phosphoric acid is one of the most commonly used acidulants in the global food industry.
Ascorbic acid provides a strong, relatively short-lasting tart taste that can enhance products like jellies, jams and candies. It is most commonly applied in fruit juices and purees, particularly from fruits like apples and peaches.
Interestingly, it provides the same activity as vitamin C and can help to replenish nutritional value that may have been lost during food and drink processing.
Ascorbic acid can also improve the palatability and colour of certain products. Ascorbic acid removes oxygen from its surroundings. This antioxidant action makes it popular for preserving the colour and freshness of food, with its low pH helping to prevent microbial growth and therefore boosting shelf life. This makes it a popular natural preservative.
Lactic acid occurs naturally and is primarily found in fermented vegetables, grains and sour milk products. Think kimchi, soy sauce and dairy products like cottage cheese, yoghurt and kefir.
With no strong smell, lactic has a relatively bland but nicely balanced taste profile with good persistence. It offers a less sharp acidity to final products compared to other acidulants.
This acidulant provides the sour flavour of sourdough breads and is known to have gut-boosting benefits, helping to reduce the risk of constipation and gastrointestinal issues.
An acidity regulator, lactic acid can extend shelf life by limiting and suppressing the growth of microorganisms. It can also enhance flavour, prevent discolouration and can function as a gelling agent.
Popular uses for lactic acid: You will find it in an array of goods, including carbonated drinks, instant drinks, bread, jams, sauces, soups, spreads, boiled sweets, desserts, salad dressings and baked goods. It can enhance the taste of products like canned fish, olives and cheese.
Tartaric acid is commonly used in the wine industry, as well as holding applications in desserts, jams and hard boiled sweets.
With a very strong (but short-lasting) tart taste profile, this acid acts as a flavour enhancer, preservative, leavening agent and is excellent for helping gels to set. It is found naturally in bananas and grapes.
A colourless crystal with no odour, it is soluble in water. Once a mainstay of food production, tartaric acid’s use has now been largely replaced by citric and malic acid.
The sodium salt of lactic acid, sodium lactate is used as a preservative and pH regulator in food production. It has a mildly saline taste.
Sodium lactate is a humectant (able to keep products moist) and bulking agent, with high water-holding capacity and buffering properties; it can act as a ‘moisturiser’ in uncured meats and hams and can ensure a tender crumb texture in baked goods.
It has a cushioning effect to stabilise the pH of foods, improving shelf life. It is also popularly used for its antioxidant, flavour enhancing and emulsifying properties.
The tribasic salt of citric acid, trisodium citrate has a sour, somewhat saline taste and is used as both a flavouring and a preservative. A good buffering agent, this acidulant can also be used to control pH levels.
Most (but not all) acidulants have no legal limitations on their use in food and drink products. Dosage should be managed according to the level of sourness and pH regulation required in your specific formula.
When selecting your acidulant, you’ll need to decide whether to go for a liquid or solid version. If your food production is an aqueous system, then a liquid is likely to be more suitable. Some operations require the solid form, however, like tablets, instant beverages and powders.
Taste profile and interaction with other ingredients will also be a crucial consideration. Acidulants are generally very versatile ingredients and can mesh well with sweeteners and other flavour systems.
If you’re working on beverages, then citric or malic acid are go-to acidulants. Malic is another popular choice for confectionery, whilst acetic acid and a range of other acidulants can be suitable for savoury food.
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