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05 September 2014

About Vinegar, Imitation Vinegar, Acetic Acid, and E260.

Beauty and the Bees Tasmania

Following our last blog post questioning whether all vinegar was 'eco' and may have been made from petrochemicals, Australian Vinegar CEO, Ian Henderson (whose Australian made distilled vinegar we referenced in the article) received a lot of emails from people eager for more information.  We are thrilled that so many people are interested in questioning how products are made, what from, and where.  We love being part of a an engaged community of conscious consumers who want change for the better.

Ian was also pleased about the interest in vinegar, but has clarified that my hunch about home brand bulk vinegars being made from petrochemical derived acetic acid was not correct.  I was so delighted to receive a phone call from Ian and his help by preparing this blog post.  Please check out their Australian Vinegar family company.

In his post below, Ian explains that Australian Food Standards dictate that when pure acetic acid that has been made from petrochemicals is mixed with water and sold as food, it must be labelled “Imitation Vinegar”.   Ian says that if we buy a product made in Australia that is labelled as vinegar, it will be made from ethanol that is either grain based or sugar based. 

Everything you ever wanted to know about Vinegar, Imitation Vinegar, Acetic Acid and E260.  By Ian Henderson, CEO and principal Vinegar Maker at Australian Vinegar. 

Vinegar is a great cleaning tool. It’s a good weedkiller and a great preservative of food. It has so many uses. We thoroughly recommend its use in cleaning.

However, there is miss-information around Vinegar, Imitation vinegar, acetic acid and E260 that I would like to address so everyone can make their own educated decisions.

Q: What is Synthetic Acetic Acid
A: There is no such thing. There is only acetic acid, which can be made a number of ways. But regardless of how it is made it is still just acetic acid made of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen molecules. C2H4O2 There is several ways to make acetic acid, and some confuse the method with the term Synthetic.

Vinegar always contains Acetic Acid. Plus maybe flavour, sweetness, or malliard Sugars (they make Balsamic black, but that’s another story)

Q: How can Acetic Acid be made?
A: There are 3 methods:
1.       By oxidation under high temperature of Ethyl Acetate (from oil usually, but not always)
2.       By fermentation of Ethanol by a bacteria called Aceterbacter.
3.       By Fermentation of sugar by a bacteria called Gluconobacter.

Method 3 is very rare, slow and difficult.  Almost all vinegars are made using method 2 from ethanol derived from yeast fermentation of grain or sugar.  Vinegar fermentation is simply a part of the carbon cycle, returning carbon back to the soil from fruit that hasn’t been eaten and fallen form the tree.

Q: So what is the difference between the three products produced above?
A: Method 1 produces pure acetic acid, that if mixed with water can be sold as food under the label “Imitation Vinegar” and not the term “Vinegar”.

Methods 2 and 3 can be sold as vinegar provided the amount of acetic acid is greater than 4%. This is for food safety as this is the level required to stop moulds growing in vinegar.

Imitation vinegar is pure acetic acid (yes, petrochemical derived) and water.  Whereas fermented vinegar is pure ethanol (usually from grain or sugar) fermented into pure acetic acid and then mixed with water.  We have done the trials ourselves, even under mass spectrometry analysis the two vinegars are essentially chemically identical. 

Acetic acid vinegars must be declared as “Imitation Vinegar”.  If it is fermented it can be declared as just “vinegar”. The law surrounding this is governed by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (Called FSANZ).   The FSANZ law on this is very clear (see the extract below).

If you start with wine, instead of pure ethanol you get wine vinegar, is you ferment apple cider you get apple cider vinegar. The source of the alcohol defines the end product.

Q: What is food additive 260?
This is pure acetic acid. It may or may not come from fermentation. But it probably does not come from fermentation, so it is best to assume is the pure acetic acid form (method 1 above).

Q: What is Distilled Vinegar? Why is it different to just “Vinegar”?
Sometimes, because the ethanol used to make white vinegar is fermented to a low concentration it needs to be “distilled” to remove excess water and concentrate the ethanol.  Sometimes you will see “Distilled Vinegar” on the label. Distilled Vinegar and just plain vinegar are the same product. Its just a bit of marketing.   Rest assured, if it had added acetic acid from oil it would not say “Vinegar” or it would have to have food additive 260 on the label.

Q: So what does my cheap white vinegar at the supermarket contain?
The plain white vinegar you can buy at the supermarket, if labelled “Vinegar” is fermented. If it is not from grain or sugar it will declare “Imitation Vinegar” or food acid 260.
Its actually rare to see imitation vinegar in retail. Its used a lot in industry, and a lot of preserved foods are declared with food acid 260.  I have never seen it for sale at a grocery store, only real “Vinegar”.

Q Cleaning vs cooking vinegar?
You can cook with white vinegar, but don’t.  Its flavourless.  Use a nice wine vinegar or apple vinegar. You get the acid that will make the dish lift, plus you get some extra flavours.  Choose cooking vinegars with lots of colour, lots of flavour and ideally with no sulphites or added colours. Know your producer, know how they make it and where they source the alcohol from.

Vinegar also has health and digestion benefits. But not all vinegars do. That’s a whole other topic for next time.

About Australian Vinegar and Ian Henderson

Ian has two science degrees and a diploma in vinegar making from Austria where he studied and worked in 2006. Ian was awarded a Churchill fellowship to study vinegar making in Europe. Ian is the CEO and principal Vinegar Maker at Australian Vinegar. Australian Vinegar is Australia’s leading vinegar maker.  LiraH is the retail brand of Australian Vinegar and makes a range of caramelised balsamics, wine vinegars, apple vinegars and Verjus.

An interesting tidbit: Ian started with a vinegar 'mother' from his wife's family of third generation winemakers, and after much trial and error  launched his first commercial product under the LiraH brand-Oak Aged Shiraz vinegar.

Excerpt from the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act

FSANZ  Standard 2.10.1      Vinegar and related products
       Note 1  This instrument is a standard under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 (Cth). The standards together make up the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. See also section 1.1.1—3.
       Note 2  The provisions of the Code that apply in New Zealand are incorporated by reference into a food standard under the Food Act 1981 (NZ). See also section 1.1.1—3.
2.10.1—1           Name
                This Standard is Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code — Standard 2.10.1 — Vinegar and related products.
2.10.1—2           Definitions
          Note  In this Code (see section 1.1.2—3):
                                      imitation vinegar means a food that:
                                            (a)     is prepared by mixing water and acetic acid; and
                                            (b)     contains no less than 40 g/kg of acetic acid.
                                      vinegar means a food that:
                                            (a)     consists of the sour liquid prepared by acetous fermentation, with or without alcoholic fermentation, of any suitable foodstuff, and including blends and mixtures of such liquids; and
                                           (b)     contains no less than 40 g/kg of acetic acid.

Author & Editor

Tracey Bailey is the founder of Biome Eco Stores and mother of two. After working in corporate communications and starting a family, she made a choice to be part of the solution to our planet's future and started Biome Eco Stores. Tracey is passionate about educating the community about living eco-friendly and sustainable lives through her extended product, chemical, health and environmental knowledge.


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