Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach

Adding Citric Acid to Teas or Herbal Blends

7 Comments

This post is inspired by an old post adding citric acid to teas, but it is much more than a rewrite of that post.

Most of us are familiar with the practice of adding lemon or lemon juice to tea.  The effect of adding lemon juice is most evident in black tea, producing an immediate chemical change in the tea, usually resulting in a noticeably lighter color, and a cup that is somewhat less bitter and astringent, but more sour.  A practice that is less familiar is one that some mainstream tea manufacturers do, particularly those dealing in herbal blends, which is adding citric acid to teas.

The following photo is by André Karwath and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.

A whole lemon and a sliced lemon, white background

Citric acid is responsible for the characteristic sour flavor of lemons and lemon juice.

I was genuinely surprised when I first saw citric acid on the ingredient list of a packaged box of herbal teas.  This would not so much surprise me for a bottled or “ready-to-drink” tea, but for a tea bag, it was quite unexpected.  I think of herbal teas as being something that is made strictly from dried plant ingredients, so I do not expect to find an added pure chemical ingredient.  Some of the mainstream teas that include added citric acid are Celestial Seasonings’ Country Peach Passion and Lemon Zinger, and Tazo’s Passion and Calm.

On Citric Acid – The Chemical and its Production

Citric acid is a common organic acid that is named (and best-known) for being the main acid that imparts the characteristic sour flavor to citrus fruits like lemon and lime.  It is a common and safe food additive, used to impart a sour flavor to food and drink.  It can be isolated from citrus fruits, but is also commercially produced on a larger scale by using mold, such as Asperillus niger, to ferment sugar.

Citric acid is a pretty basic chemical in biochemistry.  It plays an essential role in all aerobic (oxygen-respiring) organisms through the citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle.  Here is a molecular diagram, for the chemistry-minded among us:

Graphical representation of the citric acid molecule

A graphical representation of the citric acid molecule

As someone who is highly skeptical of highly refined food additives, especially ones that consist of a single chemical, a natural question for me is: is added citric acid safe?

There’s not much to worry about with respect to citric acid, beyond its sourness.  Everything I’ve ever learned about it has taught me that it’s safe as a food additive.  However, the acidity itself though can sometimes be a concern.  For example, acidic drinks can soften tooth enamel, so it’s not a great idea to brush your teeth directly after drinking a cup of sour-tasting herbal tea.  Acidic drinks can also sting or irritate the mouth, especially if there is already a sensitive area like a burn.

Added Citric Acid is Not Necessary to Make Herbal Blends Sour

When I first discovered that some herbal teas contained added citric acid, I was curious to see which blends contained it and which did not.  One thing that surprised me was that the blends that were most sour did not necessarily correspond to the ones with added citric acid.

As examples, Celestial Seasonings Country Peach Passion and Tazo Calm are not among the most sour of herbal teas out there, but the famously sour Red Zinger does not (although some of the Zinger series blends do).  This is because Red Zinger uses Hibiscus as the main ingredient.  Hibiscus on its own, when brewed as an herbal tea, is intensely sour.

This photo was contributed by Popperipopp and is licensed under CC BY 3.0.

Dried hibiscus sepals, pink and dark purple in color

Sepals of the Hibiscus sabdariffa plant are a whole ingredient that can be added to tea or herbal blends to impart a sour flavor.

Why do tea companies not always use hibiscus?  It may be due to its color, and its peculiar flavor and aroma.  Even small amounts of hibiscus impart an intense purple-red color that may not be desirable in all blends.  But hibiscus also has a characteristic aroma, which I describe as being somewhat like berries but also a lot like cooked fruit or jam.  I sometimes find this aroma a bit overpowering, so it makes sense that companies would want to look for other ways to make their blends sour.

What do you think?  How do you feel about added citric acid in tea or herbal blends?

Here are some questions that you can answer in the comments, or in a follow-up blog post of your own.

  • Did you know that some tea companies add citric acid to their herbal blends, or is this a new realization for you?
  • Are you bothered by the practice of adding citric acid rather than relying on whole ingredients like herbs or spices, or is it fine with you?
  • How do you feel about sour-tasting blends in general?  Do you tend to like or dislike them?  How sour is too sour to you?
  • Do you ever add lemon to your tea?

My personal opinion?  I don’t have a big problem with added citric acid, but I think I would prefer blends made from whole ingredients.  Either way, I don’t like sour tastes much in my tea or herb tea.  I avoid both added citric acid, and blends that have too much hibiscus or other naturally-sour whole ingredients.

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Author: Alex Zorach (teacology)

I am the founder and editor of RateTea, and am also a co-founder at Why This Way. I am committed to sustainability in every aspect of my life. I like describing my approach to life as "ecological" because it is both scientific and holistic.

7 thoughts on “Adding Citric Acid to Teas or Herbal Blends

  1. Hey, Alex – Good to reconnect and best wishes on the new blog! Stephanie

  2. Oops – that was really me above. 😉

  3. Hi Alex! Thanks for sharing this. I’ve actually never had lemon in my tea, believe it or not, although I am a lover of citrus-flavoured tea. But I assume citric acid is also used as a preservative.

    I’ve decided to feature this post as part of my weekly link-up. Just so you know 🙂
    You can find the post here:
    http://the-teaist.blogspot.nl/2012/12/tea-talk-link-up-6.html

    All the best!

  4. Hi there!

    Citric acid pops up in a lot of unexpected places because it’s a natural preservative. It’s used for this purpose in drying fruit, and most of the herbal teas I’ve seen it added to include dried fruit in their recipes. The citric acid probably isn’t an added flavor component, merely an acknowledgement of residual citric acid on the fruit pieces.

    • What you say about the citric acid being used as a natural preservatives makes sense, but I do not think that your analysis that it is included only for this purpose is accurate. If this were true, it would not be added in such quantity.

      Tazo Passion is very sour; try it for yourself! And Tazo Calm, less sour but still noticeably so, and still with added citric acid, does not contain any whole fruit ingredients, nor does it has any dominant fruity aromas. I think that the citric acid is deliberately added to this blend. Unlike Tazo Passion, Tazo Calm does not have any other ingredients imparting major sourness.

      • You misunderstand me. I wasn’t trying to suggest that citric acid is ONLY used as a preservative, and never as a flavoring agent. Merely that it’s often used as a preservative for popular ingredients, so that might explain why “the blends that were most sour did not necessarily correspond to the ones with added citric acid”–because citric acid isn’t always added for flavor.

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