In 1785, scientists discovered that malic acid is what gives apples their sour flavor. Today we know that malic acid is found in many foods and is naturally produced in the human body. Although it is mostly used as a flavor enhancer, research suggests this organic acid may have health benefits as well. Read on to learn how it works and what conditions it might be helpful in.

What is Malic Acid?

Malic acid is an organic compound found in many fruits. It was first identified in apple juice and was named after the Latin word for apple, mālum [R].

As an organic acid, it belongs to a family of compounds called alpha hydroxy acids. This group of acids are all naturally found in foods and are commonly used in anti-aging creams and for various skin conditions.

We also produce malic acid in our bodies, which can bind to other chemicals to form malate. Our body uses malate in chemical reactions to create the energy that powers our cells.

On the other hand, this acid is primarily used as a food additive to add a sour taste to foods and drinks. It is also available as a supplement, which is said to offer many health benefits [R].

Research is exploring the use of this intriguing acid in various conditions, such as for boosting skin health and exercise performance.

Snapshot

PROS

  • Naturally found in food
  • Combined with performance-enhancing substances in sports supplements
  • May enhance exercise performance
  • Helps relieve pain and improve digestion

CONS

  • Used as a food additive, often along with other potentially harmful additives
  • Other similar acids are better researched

Health Benefits

1) Exercise Performance

Malic acid plays an important role in energy production for the human body. For this reason, many people believe that malic acid improves exercise performance and strength.

A number of supplements that contain malic acid are currently available. Usually, these supplements will contain malate, which is a form of this acid that the body uses for energy.

One popular product is citrulline malate. Citrulline is an amino acid that helps remove waste products from the body.

Studies show that citrulline malate supplements may help in a variety of exercises. These benefits include:

  • Increasing workout performance and relieving muscle soreness in males [R, R, R, R]
  • Increasing upper and lower body weightlifting performance in female athletes [R]
  • Reducing blood lactate levels after intensive exercise [R]
  • Increasing insulin and growth hormone levels in male cyclists [R]

Malic acid is also sometimes combined with creatine, a popular sports supplement. Creatine is used to increase muscle mass and strength. A study found that creatine malate increases performance in sprinters and long-distance runners [R].

2) Skin Care

Many cosmetic products contain small amounts of malic acid. In these products, it helps balance pH levels. Studies suggest that it may have more capabilities than previously thought [R].

Researchers recently examined malic acid’s role in melasma, a common condition that leaves dark patches on the skin. In the study, 35 people received skin care therapy that included vitamin C and malic acid. Skin discoloration improved by an average of 73% and each person in the study saw a benefit [R].

One case report found that it may also help with warts. A man with severe warts who previously failed conventional therapy received malic acid and citric acid. Within a month his warts were completely eliminated [R+].

The potential anti-aging effect of malic acid is an attractive prospect. Malic acid is classified as an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) as well as a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Both of these acid groups are commonly used in anti-aging skin care products [R].

Although the anti-aging effects of malic acid have not yet been studied, information on other similar AHAs is available. For example, one study followed 52 people as they used AHA-containing skin care products for 21 days. They found that AHA, combined with vitamins, improves wrinkles, skin texture, and skin elasticity [R].

3) Dry Mouth

Dry mouth is a common clinical problem. Medications, radiation therapy, and dehydration all frequently cause this condition. Treating dry mouth is important – persistent dryness can lead to tooth decay and mouth infections.

A group of clinical trials found that a malic acid 1% mouth spray increases the production and flow of saliva. This mouth spray reduced dry mouth caused by blood pressure medications and antidepressants. The elderly also saw an improvement with the spray [R, R, R].

Based on an analysis of 26 studies, clinicians recommend malic acid for dry mouth caused by medications. A different study found that the spray also significantly improves the quality of life [R, R].

4) Kidney Stones

Kidney stones can form when calcium combines with other compounds in the urine. Citrate, a form of citric acid, helps reduce the risk of kidney stones. It works by preventing calcium from forming crystals while also balancing the pH of the urine [R].

One small study of 8 people reports that malic acid increases the concentration of citrate in the urine. Researchers suggest that it could potentially be another non-surgical option for kidney stones [R].

5) Pain Relief

Malic acid may help relieve pain in fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that is difficult to treat.

A study tested a supplement containing malic acid and magnesium in 24 people with fibromyalgia. The supplement improved pain and tenderness when used for at least 2 months [R].

6) Diabetes and Cholesterol

Chromium malate is a newly-developed supplement that shows promise in improving type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Chromium is an essential nutrient that the body needs to process sugar and fat [R].

Studies in rats show that chromium malate improves glucose levels and insulin sensitivity. It also increases good cholesterol while lowering bad cholesterol. Chromium malate appears to be safer and more effective than other chromium supplements. Although these results are promising, no studies have been performed in humans [R, R].

7) Digestion

Malic acid may help in digestion, for cows at least. Several studies show that adding it to the diets of cows increases nutrient digestion and milk production. The effect of malic acid on human digestion is unknown [R, R, R].

8) Cognition

Malic acid is able to act as a pH adjuster in food products as well. Changing the acidity of food products can improve nutrient absorption in the stomach [R].

One small study in Japan suggests that an acidified milk protein drink may actually improve cognition. Researchers examined a special milk protein drink that was acidified with malic and citric acid. The study found that people who consumed the acidified milk protein drink performed better on cognition tests [R].

Side Effects & Precautions

Very little information is available on the side effects of malic acid alone. No clinical trials have evaluated its safety and side effects.

The FDA labels malic acid as a “food substance generally recognized as safe”. They say it is appropriate as a flavor enhancer and ph control agent.

Most of the studies on malic acid (citrulline malate) and exercise performance had zero reported side effects. One study found the only side effect was stomach discomfort, which was seen in 14.6% of people [R].

Based on skin care studies, malic acid also causes irritation when applied to the skin. Other similar acids used for skin care are known to cause redness, swelling, and light sensitivity [R, R].

Limitations and Caveats

Safety

Information on the side effects and long term risks of malic acid are lacking. Although many fruits naturally contain it, the safety of using high dose supplements is uncertain.

Exercise Performance

The majority of clinical trials of malic acid have focused on exercise performance. However, the sample size of all these studies are very small, most include less than 20 people. There are also a number of studies that suggest it has no effect on exercise performance [R, R, R, R].

Skin Care

Skin care products primarily use malic acid as a pH adjuster. This means only low concentrations of it are present. According to some cell studies, malic acid damages skin cells and prevents new skin cells from growing. Clinicians from the International Journal of Toxicology recommend only using it as a pH adjuster due to the lack of safety studies [R, R].

Supplement Formulations

Malic acid supplements are available as capsules. Some products include it with other nutrients like magnesium. These supplements do not have a sour taste, as long as the ingredients remain in the capsule. Depending on the manufacturer, these capsules can be vegan and gluten-free.

Manufacturers formulate citrulline malate primarily as a powder for enhancing workouts. Users should mix and drink this powder with fluid shortly before exercise. As a powder, the sour flavor is very noticeable.

Skin care products may contain small amounts of malic acid and higher amounts of other, similar hydroxy acids. These products include lotions, creams, and face peel treatments.

Research has examined malic acid as a mouth spray used for dry mouth. However, there currently are no such mouth sprays available for consumer purchase.

Dicaffeine Malate

Dicaffeine malate, also branded as Infinergy, is a combination of caffeine and malic acid. Manufacturers market it as an energy booster that contains about 75% caffeine per milligram.

The makers of Infinergy claim that the addition of malic acid offers health benefits. They state that it prevents the stomach discomfort commonly seen in other caffeine products. It also supposedly helps minimize the energy crash after the caffeine wears off.

Theoretically, malic acid may help protect the stomach and boost energy. That said, there are currently no studies that support these claims.

User Experiences

Users of malic acid supplements generally leave positive product reviews. Some users report that it is the only effective product they have found for their fibromyalgia pain. Other users enjoy the energy boost they receive. Malic acid also appears to be popular for liver cleanses and detox therapy.

Most negative reviews focus on side effects, which mostly boil down to stomach discomfort. Other negative reviews came from users who saw no effect when using the supplement.

Users also rate citrulline malate highly. Many users report better workouts and less fatigue. The main complaint appears to be the sour taste, which is hard to swallow for some.

Food Sources

Although malic acid was first discovered in apples, a wide range of fruits contains it. These include grapes, mangos, pears, oranges, and many more. Products derived from fruits, like apple juice and wine, will also contain malic acid [R+, R, R].

Some vegetables like rhubarb, celery, and carrots contain this acid as well [R].

The amount of malic acid in fruits and vegetables can vary. Researchers have found that wild apples contain higher levels compared to farmed apples. Levels can also depend on temperature, how the fruit is stored, and the age of the fruit [R, R].

Manufacturers often add malic acid to foods and beverages as a flavor enhancer. Others use it to add a tart flavor to candy, soda, and gum, just to name a few. Food grade malic acid powder is available for cooking and baking.

Buy Malic Acid

Take-Away:

First discovered in apples, malic acid is an organic compound that gives many fruits their sour taste. It is most commonly used as a food additive in many foods and drinks.

The human body also naturally produces malic acid. Cells in the body use malate, a form of malic acid, to produce energy.

Malic acid and its different forms are available as supplements. Research suggests that it may help in:

  • Exercise performance
  • Skin care
  • Dry mouth
  • Kidney stones
  • Pain

The long-term risks of taking malic acid are unknown. More research is required before it can be confidently recommended.

About the Author

Mathew Eng, PharmD

PharmD

Mathew received his PharmD from the University of Hawaii and undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Washington.

Mathew is a licensed pharmacist with clinical experience in oncology, infectious disease, and diabetes management. He has a passion for personalized patient care and believes that education is essential to living a healthy life. His goal is to motivate individuals to find ways to manage their chronic conditions.

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