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What is Tartaric Acid?

By Douglas Bonderud
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Tartaric acid is an organic acid that is present in plants, including grapes, tamarinds, and bananas. It is a diprotic acid, which means that it has two hydrogen atoms on each of its molecules that can be ionized in water. Tartaric acid salts are called tartrates.

The first form of this acid, derived from potassium tartrate, was isolated in the early part of the ninth century by Jabir ibn Hayyan. The Persian-born Hayyan was responsible for a number of firsts in the field of chemistry. Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele later developed the modern method for obtaining this substance in 1769.

This acid is naturally-occurring, but can also be synthetically reproduced. Two forms of tartaric acid, levotartaric acid and mesotartaric acid, can be created artificially. The first pure levotartaric acid sample was created by Louis Pasteur in 1847.

One interesting property of tartaric acid is that it is chiral. This means that its internal structure does not have a plane of symmetry, and that it also has a mirror-image that cannot be superimposed. Chiral mirror-images, also known as enantiomers, are often compared to human hands. They are identical in composition, but not in form. The most common reason a molecule displays chilarity is the presence of an asymmetrical carbon atom, which is a carbon atom that is attached to four other atoms or groups of atoms.

The most common use of tartaric acid is as a food additive. It is often added to certain kinds of candy to give it a sour taste. Cream of tartar, known chemically as potassium bitrate, is typically used to stabilize egg whites, and as an active ingredient in baking powder. This acid is also found in wine, and is responsible for wine diamonds, which are small potassium bitartrate crystals that occasionally form on wine corks.

This substance is also used as an emetic to induce vomiting, and as a laxative. In addition, it functions as an antioxidant. This means that it limits or prevents the oxidization of molecules in the body, in order to prevent the formation of free radicals.

High levels of tartaric acid can be dangerous, because it can act as a muscle toxin. When ingested in certain amounts, it inhibits the creation of malic acid, and an overdose can cause paralysis or death. A lethal dose in humans is approximately 7.5 grams (g) per kilogram (kg). This means that a human weighing 70 kg would need to ingest at least 500 g of it, for it to become toxic.

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Discussion Comments

By anon991233 — On Jun 06, 2015

Lethal dose for a 70kg human being is 500g, or 7.5g/kg.

By anon325147 — On Mar 14, 2013

Tartaric acid is found in tic tacs for those of you wondering.

By anon175566 — On May 13, 2011

Maybe I should point out to you that we do swim in Hydrochloric acid in a swimming pool.

By anon170673 — On Apr 27, 2011

I'm doing a chemistry investigation on the total acidity of wine, measured by the tartaric acid content. How exactly does tartaric acid act as an antioxidant, or does that differ across its presence in different mixtures? If so, how about in wine?

By rosoph — On Mar 27, 2011

I'm always looking for foods with antioxidants in them, because I've heard that antioxidants are good for preventing cancer. I love chocolate. I only eat dark chocolate though, because of the antioxidants.

What kinds of candy can you find tartaric acid in? Would it be listed in the ingredients? I figure if you're going to eat candy, you might as well eat candy that has at least some health benefits!

Are there any other kinds of food that tartaric acid is added to?

By geronimo8 — On Mar 25, 2011

If tartaric acid is added to candy to give it a sour taste, is that why we sometimes say that sour things are tart?

If not, that's a really big coincidence!

By jlmk — On Mar 23, 2011

It's a little scary that tartaric acid is added to candy if it can be lethal if too much is ingested. How much candy would you have to eat in order for it to be a problem? I'm hoping it's such a huge number that it would be unrealistic for a human being to actually eat that much candy!

I'm also wondering how much candy containing tartaric acid would have to be ingested for it to start working as a laxative, or for it to induce vomiting.

Can you believe we eat this stuff as a treat?

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