What is lactic acid in food?

An essential ingredient in creating some of the best tangy foods around, lactic acid creates tasty food with a long shelf life. Many consumers know about lactic acid build-up in their bodies built from exercising, but what is lactic acid in food?

Bulk lactic acid for processed foods starts as an acidic liquid or powder. Food producers add the ingredient to their products as a preservative, to promote gut health, and impart a sour taste. Lactic acid occurs naturally in many foods, meaning it’s easy to find different sources of lactic acid to create a clean labeled product.

So how do you add lactic acid to a meal? How does it increase the nutritional value of iron-rich foods? And how is lactic acid regulated by the FDA?

What is lactic acid?

White lactic Acid powder

Lactic acid is a natural byproduct created during the fermentation process of yogurt, sauerkraut, and other foods. Food scientists note it imparts a sour taste.
In 1780, Carl Wilhelm Scheele first isolated sour milk acid and identified lactic acid. Food producers use lactic acid to naturally add flavor and preservatives while improving sales by maintaining a clean-label brand perception. Scientists have also noted the presence of lactic acid in muscles after exercise, and the cosmetic industry uses it in products as an antioxidant.
In 2021, the global lactic acid market reached $2.9 billion in value. Experts forecast the market value to grow 8% annually from 2022 to 2030.

What foods contain lactic acid?

glass of sour beer

When scouring ingredient lists, lactic acids show up in fermented foods and vegetables. Here is a non-complete list of the foods containing lactic acids:

  • Sour beer
  • Kimchi
  • Yeast
  • Buttermilk
  • Sourdough bread
  • Kefir
  • Pickled vegetables

When included in small concentrations, many consumers don’t notice a difference in flavor.

How do you create lactic acid?

lactic acid with bubbles

Lactic acid can be created naturally during your food’s fermentation process or added as an isolated ingredient. 

When in a liquid form, lactic acid is colorless and mild in flavor. When a powder, the ingredient is white and fully dissolves in water. Within the industry, producers achieve lactic acid bacteria fermentation by converting simple carbohydrates like glucose, sucrose, or lactose into lactic acid.

According to the FDA, producers can create the ingredient by converting lactonitrile from acetaldehyde or hydrogen cyanide and subsequent hydrolysis.

Is lactic acid healthy?

lactic acid white creamy

The health benefits of lactic acid do not apply to all acids in foods.

The fermentation process required to create the ingredient increases the body’s gut health by creating a healthy stomach microbiome. A happy gut can improve sleep, digestion, daily comfort, and your immune system.

Other health benefits include improved nutrient absorption, especially iron. Lactic acid increases the body’s ability to absorb iron and other nutrients, meaning your food does more when adding lactic acid. 

How does the FDA regulate lactic acid in food?

FDA head office

The FDA has listed lactic acid in food as a Generally Recognized as Safe ingredient in the right amounts. Like with many products, overuse of an ingredient can have dangerous side effects.

However, the FDA has restricted lactic acid’s use in food for babies, specifically infant food and formulas. Producers wondering about health restrictions will be happy to know it’s possible to make their products with lactic acid vegan. Rely on a non-dairy source of lactic acid like beet sugar for a vegan product.

And it also fits all-natural ingredient lists, making it a great ingredient for clean-label products.

Should you create or add isolate lactic acid in your recipes?

Sliced Butter in White Plate

Food distributors commonly use lactic acid in their products, contributing a large amount of the ingredient’s market value.

The FDA has approved the use of the ingredient for flavoring, pickling, and curing. It acts as a solvent and pH control agent. In grocery stores, many family shoppers want to buy natural and clean foods free of GMOs. Lactic acid is natural and creates a clean ingredient list without much extra work. 

Experimentation with different concentrations of lactic acid will likely yield the best results. When conducting food tests, start at 1% concentration. Then add or reduce the lactic acid concentration at small concentrations. This is how food producers will find their flavor threshold.

    What form of lactic acid should your company buy?

    The three forms of lactic acid include liquid, powder, or salt.

    Lactic acid is found primarily in bulk as a liquid. The liquid form also includes lactic acid salts like sodium lactate or calcium lactate. These extra salts dilute the quality of your lactic acid and impact taste, value, and overall cost.

    For this reason, we recommend buying lactic acid powder dried with canola oil. As a powder, it tastes mildly acidic. Producers can easily add powder to any wet or dry product.

    How much does lactic acid powder cost?

    Buy Mezzoni Foods lactic acid powder at a reasonable price point to keep your food sales low. A ½ pound batch of dry lactic acid costs $35, with prices increasing with batch amounts.
    The non-GMO product is a white powder containing no artificial flavors or preservatives. Additionally, Mezzoni Foods provides extensive documentation to ensure you know precisely what your company is ordering and what your customers are eating.