In this article:
- Lemon juice can be used in cooking, baking, making beverages, and cleaning items around the home.
- Lemon contains significant amounts of citric acid, which accounts for its immune-boosting, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
- Drinking lemon juice can help improve kidney and heart health and can aid in weight loss, too.
- The oil from lemon peel is often used in furniture polish, detergent, soaps, perfumes, and other body care products. The dehydrated peel from a lemon is often used in cattle feed.
- While lemon is generally thought to be safe, excessive consumption can result in tooth erosion due to its acidic content.
The lemon (Citrus limon) is a popular fruit around the globe and is used in cooking, baking, making beverages, cleaning, and more. Every part of the lemon, from peel to flesh, can be used and enjoyed.
As many cultures have enjoyed lemon for centuries, it is found in many cuisines. This article will review the history and varieties of lemon and its health benefits. It will also share some tasty recipes that use lemon.
The Origins of Lemon
The Rutaceae family is native to northeastern India. Thus, the origins of the lemon tree can be traced back to this area.
In 2000 BC, lemons spread into China and eventually found their way to Persia and the Mediterranean by about 700 AD. In fact, Roman mosaic tiles from the second century featured depictions of lemons.
Christopher Columbus brought lemons to the Americas, and the Portuguese took lemons to Brazil. This yellow fruit spread throughout the New World.
Uses of Lemons
Lemons have so many uses throughout the world due to their unique flavor and aroma. Some popular uses are:
- Flavoring in cooked foods and desserts
- Salad dressings
Lemon juice is sold fresh, canned, concentrated, frozen, dehydrated, and powdered. It is often used in beverages such as lemonade, soft drinks, cocktails, and tea. It can also be used in tarts, pies, baked bars, cakes, cookies, icings, puddings, sherbet, candies, and preserves.
Lemon juice is also sometimes included in pharmaceutical products. It is used as both a flavoring agent and a functional ingredient.
When added to cream before whipping, lemon juice helps to stabilize it for a longer period of time.
Lemon is often used as a stain remover; cut lemon dipped in salt can also be used to polish copper pots.
Nutrition Facts of Lemon
Lemon contains many nutrients and is a good source of calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium; vitamins A, B, and C; and fiber.
The citric acid in lemon is known for its immune-boosting, antibacterial, and antiviral qualities. (1)
Lemon is rich in water. In 100 grams of lemon, there are only 29 calories, 1 gram of protein, very little fat, 9 grams of carbohydrate, and almost 3 grams of fiber. It also contains 138 mg of potassium and 53 mg of vitamin C. (1)
Health Benefits of Lemon
Lemon has long been used for health purposes, and research does support some benefits of this bright-yellow fruit.
1. May Prevent Kidney Stones
Lemons boast of having the highest citrate concentration of all citrus fruits. Citrate binds to calcium, which can help prevent kidney stones from forming.
Drinking lemon juice diluted in water daily has been shown to reduce the risk of kidney stones by increasing the amount of citrate and potassium. (2)
One study found that drinking lemonade increased urinary citrate and overall urine volume, which are beneficial for the prevention of kidney stones. The same study found that the intake of potassium citrate in combination with lemonade increased urinary citrate even more. (3)
The citrate in lemons can help prevent kidney stones, and lemon can also have a diuretic effect. More research is needed about how much lemon juice to take and how to use lemon for the prevention of kidney stones.
2. Promotes Cardiovascular Health
This citrus fruit is known for its vitamin C content. In fact, 53 mg of vitamin C is found in every 100 grams of lemon, which is about 80% of your daily required need.
Vitamin C relaxes the blood vessels and helps them dilate. When blood vessels dilate, called vasodilation, they open wider. The blood vessels of people who have plaque in the arteries are not able to dilate properly.
A decrease in vasodilation is also found in those with chest pains, diabetes, congestive heart failure, high cholesterol levels, and high blood pressure. One of the risk factors for heart disease is a decrease in vasodilation capability.
Some studies found that vitamin C may improve cholesterol levels and stiffness in the arteries. It may also cause improvement in the lining of the arteries.
However, other studies have not been able to prove these claims and found varied results on vitamin C’s effects on heart disease risk and death.
Several studies demonstrated that vitamin C deficiency is correlated with a higher risk of death from heart disease. Vitamin C may also improve the lining of blood vessels and cholesterol levels in those who are already low in vitamin C. (4)(5)
Vitamin C deficiency is very rare. Additionally, citrus fruits such as lemons contain flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidant compounds.
These compounds may help improve high cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, fatty liver, plaques in the arteries, and obesity. However, more research is needed to determine how effective and safe these compounds are as well as how to use them. (6)
Potassium can also help lower blood pressure, and lemons are good sources of this mineral. Potassium often counteracts the effect of sodium by helping the body shuttle excess sodium out via the urine.
One study found that lemon consumption was linked to a decrease in systolic blood pressure. The study also found that those who regularly walked, in addition to consuming lemon, saw the greatest improvements. (7)
Consuming lemon may increase the blood citric acid concentration and a walk may decrease blood pressure. It is thought that lemon and walking actually decrease blood pressure through different pathways.
There are compounds in lemon that may promote cardiovascular health. Vitamin C may help relax the blood vessels and reduce high blood pressure and high cholesterol. The potassium in lemons has also been shown to decrease blood pressure. Flavonoids may also improve heart health. More research is still needed in this area.
3. May Help With Weight Loss
Many people believe that drinking hot lemon water can help with weight loss. But there is not much evidence that can prove this method to be effective.
One study found that drinking lemon honey juice four times per day while fasting helped individuals lose weight, but it remains unclear whether it was the lemon honey juice or the act of fasting that helped. (8)
Drinking soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to obesity due to the high-calorie content. Thus, simply switching to a lower-calorie alternative such as lemon water may help with weight loss.
While often recommended as a weight loss aid, lemon water has not been proven to help with weight reduction.
4. Boosts Immunity
Studies have shown that vitamin C helps reduce the duration and severity of colds. Given lemon’s overall safety, wide availability, and low cost, individuals suffering from a cold may want to add lemon to their tea or drink lemon water to see if it helps. (10)
Lemons also contain saponins, which act as antimicrobial agents. These may help fight off bacteria as well.
Lemon may help prevent colds, flu, and other illnesses, but more research is needed.
Other Health Benefits of Lemon
1. Skin and Hair Health
Many people drink lemon water to enhance the appearance of their skin. Lemon does contain a lot of vitamin C and antioxidants, which have been shown to help fight free-radical damage and combat the signs of aging.
Some facial creams formulated to eliminate age spots on the skin contain lemon. Vitamin C can help even out pigmentation without irritating the skin. The citric acid in lemons works as an alpha hydroxy acid, which can exfoliate the skin.
Niacin (B3) is also found in lemons, which can even out the complexion and fight dry skin.
Lemon compounds are often used in skincare. Exercise caution before applying lemon directly to the face, as it may cause irritation due to its acidic content.
2. Lemon for Anemia
The vitamin C and citric acid in lemon can help the body absorb iron from fruits, vegetables, and grains, decreasing the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.
3. May Improve Digestion
Some people believe that lemon can aid digestion.
It is thought that since lemon is acidic and your digestive enzymes are also acidic, lemon juice stimulates your liver to produce more bile, which can help with digestion. However, there is no evidence for this claim.
Nevertheless, drinking lemon water after a meal is considered safe. Although it is acidic, it is hydrating, which can help with digestion.
Different Ways to Use a Lemon
1. Lemon Essential Oil
Lemon oil contains d-limonene, l-limonene, and terpenes, as well as the aldehyde citral, which is responsible for lemon’s distinct aroma.
2. Lemon Peel and Zest
The peel of a lemon has some calcium, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. It is also a source of antioxidant flavonoids and pectin. (15)
The limonene in lemon peels and oil may have cancer-fighting properties and may also help relieve heartburn. It is safe to consume lemon peels, but they should be washed thoroughly, as they may contain insecticides, pesticides, and a wax coating.
Lemon zest is often used in salad dressings and marinades, but it can also be used in yogurt, smoothies, and soups.
3. Lemon Seeds
The oil from lemon seeds is often used in beauty products, pharmaceuticals, and supplements. It is believed that lemon seed oil helps to detoxify the digestive system and treat acne, although none of these claims have been proven.
If consumed in large amounts, lemon seeds could lead to irritation. Accidental consumption of lemon seeds is not likely to cause any issues or problems.
The peel, zest, oil, and seeds of lemons are used for a variety of purposes and can be safely consumed in moderation.
Selection and Storage
Lemons should be heavy for their size with a firm, smooth, thin skin. They can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Here are the popular varieties of lemon:
- Eureka – Very pale-green flesh, pointed bottom, and rippled rough skin
- Meyer – A hybrid that has a smooth pale-orange skin and a sweet taste
- Lisbon – Yellow flesh with smooth skin, often used in cooking and juicing, the most commonly grown
Lemons vs. Limes
Lemons are oval and have a yellow, textured, sometimes bumpy peel. The two main varieties of lemons are the Eureka and Lisbon, although Meyer is gaining popularity.
Limes are smaller in sizes, can be oval or round, and have a green peel and flesh. They can be sweet or sour.
Limes do contain more natural sugar and are therefore considered to be less sour than lemons. There are two varieties of limes, the Key lime and the Tahitian lime.
Can Lemon Cure Cancer? Debunking a Myth
There are some claims that drinking lemon water for 1-3 months will cause cancer to “disappear.” This claim has absolutely no scientific evidence.
Beneficial compounds are found in lemons, but the amount of these compounds does not match the equivalent needed to be a therapeutic alternative to chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other proven methods.
There is no evidence that consuming lemon will cure cancer.
Side Effects and Safety of Lemons
Due to its popularity, lemon is consumed around the world in a variety of foods and beverages. While generally thought to be safe, excessive consumption can be problematic.
Tooth enamel can erode if frequently exposed to acidic foods, like lemons. If you drink lemon water regularly, it may be beneficial to brush your teeth afterward. You may also consider drinking it from a straw.
Acidic foods may also irritate existing mouth sores. Additionally, excessive vitamin C can lead to nausea and stomach pain. Because lemon is so acidic, excessive lemon or lemon juice consumption may worsen ulcers.
When taken excessively, lemons and lemon juice may result in excessive urination, which in turn may cause dehydration.
The amino acid tyramine found in lemons may trigger migraines. Moderate consumption of lemon will likely not cause a problem, but be cautious of using lemon excessively if you suffer from migraines.
Enjoying lemons and lemon juice in moderation is fine, but drinking a lot of lemon-based beverages, squeezing lemon in your water and tea frequently, and using lemon daily to flavor your dishes and desserts may lead to unfavorable health outcomes.
Lemon has not been found to interact with vitamins. There is currently not enough scientific evidence to state the correct amount of lemon to be taken safely.
If you are using lemon juice topically on your skin, it is always better to do a patch test first. It may be too harsh for certain skin types.
Lemons are generally recognized as safe if enjoyed in moderation. Excessive lemon consumption may result in erosion of tooth enamel, irritated ulcers, excessive urination, migraines, and more.
Citric Acid Intolerance and Allergies
A citrus allergy is caused by a reaction to a specific protein found in citrus fruit. People with an intolerance to citric acid may react not only to citrus fruits but also to some vegetables and processed foods that use citric acid as a preservative.
A citric acid intolerance does not trigger an autoimmune response, whereas an allergy does.
When the body does not produce enough of a particular enzyme or chemical needed to process and digest a component in food, an intolerance occurs. A common intolerance is lactose intolerance.
Those with a citrus allergy or citric acid intolerance are advised to avoid all citrus foods, including lemons.
- Butter – 1 cup
- Sugar, divided – 2 cups
- All-purpose flour – 21/4 cups
- Large eggs – 4
- Lemons, juiced – 2
- Confectioner’s sugar (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 °F.
- Stir together 2 cups of flour, 1/2 cup of sugar, and the softened butter in a bowl. Combine well until the mixture holds together.
- Press the crust mixture into the bottom of a 9×13 pan. Pat until the crust’s thickness is even.
- Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes at 350 °F. The crust should be firm and golden. Allow it to cool.
- In a separate bowl, combine 1/4 cup of flour and 11/2 cups of sugar.
- Whisk in the lemon juice and eggs. Combine well.
- Pour the lemon mixture over the cooled crust.
- Bake for 20 minutes at 350 °F. Pull the bars from the oven, and set the pan on a cooling rack. The bars will continue to firm as they cool.
- Once completely cooled, cut the bars into 2×2 inch squares.
- Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar if desired.
- Peaches, pitted, peeled, and chopped – 2 medium
- Sugar – 1 cup
- Water, divided – 4 cups
- Lemon juice – 3/4 cup
- Lemon, sliced into half-moons – 1 medium
- Mint (optional)
- Bring 2 cups of water, the chopped peaches, and sugar to a boil.
- Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for about 5 minutes. The peaches should be tender.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- In a large pitcher, mix the remaining 2 cups of water (chilled) with the lemon juice and the peach mixture. Add the sliced lemons and mint, if using. Stir well to combine.
- Serve over ice.
Lemons are popular around the world and used in a variety of ways. They are used to flavor foods and beverages. They are also used in beauty products, body care items, and cleaning products.
Lemons have been prized in many cultures for their health benefits. While lemons can help boost immunity and may improve kidney and heart health, many other health claims have been overblown and lack scientific evidence. This well-loved fruit may be enjoyed safely in moderation in a variety of dishes.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Ms. Kathleen Putnam, MS, RDN, CDN
Lemons were once known to be the best way to prevent scurvy. Today, with supplementation of the food supply and enrichment of so many products, lemons are no longer typically used this way.
Lemons are still excellent natural sources of vitamin C and bioflavonoids, both rich in antioxidants. Lemons also have high quantities of citric acid, which has been thought to support kidney health by boosting urinary citric acid levels and reducing calcium-containing kidney stones.
Although this may change in the future, lemon juice’s current role in preventing kidney stones remains theoretical in the research.
There is some concern that applying lemon juice externally to light-skinned individuals may increase the risk of sunburn. Hence, such use is not advised.
There are no known food/medication interactions with lemons.
Drinking lemon water daily may elevate the citric acid levels in the urine, which may help prevent kidney stones if they are calcium-containing. However, this claim remains inconclusive. For some people who find water alone to be flavorless and undesirable, putting lemon in drinking water can significantly improve hydration.
My father was a dentist and always hated watching our family competitions to see who could eat a lemon without puckering – a family contest that would happen every time lemons were served with our beverages. He would say, “Now rinse your mouth and get rid of all that acid from the lemon – it will erode your teeth!”
If you enjoy drinking lemon water, chewing your lemons, or using lemon juice on your food items regularly, enjoy the taste and health benefits and rinse well after.
Also, follow proper dental care daily to prevent erosion of the enamel from the acidity of lemon juice.
Hypothetically, if lemon juice is added to your diet to boost the vitamin C content while adding iron-rich foods that are non-heme sources of iron (plant sources of iron such as nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and greens), lemons could indirectly improve iron deficiency anemia.
Vitamin C from any food source or supplement, when eaten with plant foods that are high in dietary iron, can boost the body’s iron absorption. This is important as iron deficiency anemia is the number one micronutrient issue around the world.
Vitamin C, not lemon per se, has been shown to be beneficial when added to facial products because, as an antioxidant, it helps protect the skin. However, the application of lemon itself to the skin may cause problems upon sun exposure and, therefore, is not recommended.
– Lemons are flavor enhancers. Lemons (both the juice and zest) can bring out the flavor of a number of dishes and beverages. They can provide a zip to any food item.
– Add slices of lemons to your water each day for a refreshing drink.
– Squeeze lemon over your vegetables, grains, and salads (both fruit and green salads) for added flavor.
– Squeeze lemon over fresh fish and enjoy.
– Lemon juice added to dishes instead of salt can help reduce sodium in your diet.
About Ms. Kathleen Putnam, MS, RDN, CDN: Kathleen holds a master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University and is an online lifestyle coach for patients with diabetes. She also runs a successful coaching practice working with hundreds of patients. She also serves as an associate professor teaching nutrition and human development in multiple higher-education institutions in Seattle.
Kathleen has worked as a trainer with the Dean Ornish Program for reversing heart disease. She is also a certified provider of the Emotional Brain Training (EBT) Program of Dr. Laurel Mellin, helping clients end stress eating.