Upon closer inspection though, I am very sorry to say that it certainly doesn't appear that white vinegar is quite what we thought it was in terms of being green.
As it turns out, the more I read about it, the more I uncovered a whole lot of half truths about white vinegar and its production. On the face of it, it appears it is far from totally green.
In fact, seems to be the whole process of creation to use is pretty UN-green from what I can gather... but like I say, there's a lot of half truths or not quite upfront truths around how its actually made. It was really a challenge to find out anything about it.
White vinegar can come in two forms. There first is the distilled product often made from distilling a grain like barley or wheat. The second and cheaper version is known as food grade "acetic acid". What's the difference you might ask? Generally speaking, one is brewed and / or fermented. The other is dilute acetic acid that is used, as one example, in commercial laundries as an alkalising agent in the final rinse to restore pH levels on fabric.
A Little Bit of Chemistry
Now, 'acetic acid' is the chemical name for a naturally occuring substance which is commonly known as 'vinegar'. It is also the name given to the synthetic version thereof; a highly caustic substance that is corrosive in its purest form. So, an important key to this debate is that you can have BOTH synthetic acetic acid made in a large scale lab / manufacturing plant and you can have the naturally occurring version which we call 'vinegar'.
White vinegar that is food grade dilute acetic acid is generally produced using quite a few chemicals and some raw materials mined from the earth, causing a chemical reaction.
The cheaper white vinegars labelled "acetic acid 5%" don't appear to be made in a distillery or brewery like white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar. The general rule of thumb I have employed is that if it says "acetic acid" on the label, it is not distilled or brewed vinegar - its more likely to be the synthetic variety. Where mining and chemicals like butane are concerned, I'd rather use the fermented version in my home, thanks!
Now, not ALL countries in the world approve the use of synthetically created acetic acid for human consumption - but USA, EU & Australia do. If you check out the FDA in USA and Food Standards Australia there is allowance for a certain amount of "food grade acetic acid" in foods, preserves, chutneys and vinegar.
The FDA in USA (whom our own Food Standards Australia appear to copy from unashamedly) says this about white vinegar production:
“Presently, we authorize the manufacture of vinegar from ethyl alcohol synthesized from natural gas or petroleum derivatives. It is our opinion that most of the distilled spirits used in the production of vinegar are derived from natural gas and petroleum…
Synthetic ethyl alcohol may be used as a food ingredient or in the manufacturing of vinegar or other chemicals for food use, within limitations imposed by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the Alcohol Administration Act, and regulations promulgated under these acts”.
Unless your white vinegar bottle says or makes reference to on the label “distilled” then it has likely not gone through the distillation & fermentation process. It is more likely to have been created synthetically using petroleum derivatives, as outlined by statements from the Food & Drug Administration, above.
In the report "The History of Vinegar" by Hubert A Conner, Department of Physical Sciences, Northern Kentucky University and Rudolph J AllGeier, Wheaton Place, Catonsville, Maryland, it states:
"While white distilled vinegar can be made by the acetous fermentation of ethanol from any source, almost the entire production of this vinegar in the United States is derived from synthetic ethanol. In England the term “distilled vinegar” is applied to a distillate of malt vinegar, whereas in the United States the word “distilled refers to the ethanol used as a raw material; the vinegar itself is not distilled".
It goes on to say:
"Beginning in the early 1950s, increasing amounts of synthetic ethanol from ethylene (derived from natural gas) were substituted for fermentation ethanol for vinegar production in the United States and other parts of the world".
From a labeling point of view, It appears the differentiating labelling for the synthetic version vs the natural version is “acetic acid”. The reason I say this is because I have yet to see a bottle of white vinegar use "acetic acid" on its label when they also refer to distillation or a grain (i.e. distilled from grain). It seems to be the only labelling differentiation that I can find, to tell which product is made from which method.
Labelled "Distilled" = likely to be fermented grains with alcohol like rice or wheat or barley vinegar for example.
Labelled "Acetic acid" = likely to be made from synthetic ethanol (alcohol) that is derived from petro-chemicals or natural gas.
I've contacted all major white vinegar companies in Australia numerous times for assurances but none have been forthcoming about their production methods.The information I have found states that most white vinegar production in the USA and Australia is done through adding ethanol (synthetic alcohol) to whatever substance (ethyl acetate is one of them). There is very little stated about distillation or fermentation processes currently used.
In the food industry, acetic acid is recognised by the code E260 & is used in condiments as an acidity regulator. Acetic acid is approved for food in Australia, New Zeland, the EU and USA - not globally.
The first company to go with large scale industrial production processes for acetic acid was none other than MONSANTO; the global genetic engineering giant who produces things like Roundup pesticides and genetically modified seeds.
There is a new process for acetic acid production which involves using iridium. This new process is the brain child of BP CHEMICALS. This second process is called “The Acetaldehyde Process”. Again, acetaldehyde CAN be a naturally occurring substance however it seems unlikely that BP Chemicals would be using the naturally occurring substance in their process of manufacture.
Whilst apparently this substance does occur naturally, it appears that the acetaldehyde used in this process is produced via oxidation of butane or light naphtha, or by hydration of ethylene. When butane or light naphtha is heated with air in the presence of various metal ions, including those of manganese, cobalt, and chromium, peroxides form, it then decomposes to produce acetic acid.
What is Naphtha? That’s a very broad term covering the lightest liquid hydrocarbons found in petroleum, which is the specialty of BP Chemicals. So yes, whilst it is a good way to use up some of the by-products from the petroleum industry, the product vinegar that can be produced in this way is not quite what we thought.
Correct labeling of products is actually the core issue here. One product is labeled "acetic acid 5%" and the other, seemingly the same, is labeled "distilled from grain". Whilst its not iron clad that the cheap white vinegar you may have been using is petro-chemically derived, it is likely if it doesn't state anywhere on the label that it has been distilled.
My frustration about this issue is that I have been shot down repeatedly for standing up and exposing what is potentially a point of concern for Eco Mums and their families. I don't use petro-chemically derived products in my home as I don't see it as necessary or healthy. That is my personal stance on the issue, however each person has to do what feels right for them.
As it stands, Heinz Vinegar in the USA recently spent huge amounts of money advertising that their vinegar was NOT petro-chemically derived, that it was natural. If a company as large as Heinz are willing to spend so much to advertise this fact then that demonstrates that there is a market of both types of vinegar; synthetic and natural. No company in their right mind would advertise such a statement if everyone's products were natural.
To sum up, do what works for you - white vinegar, in any form, cleans well - there is no disputing that. From now on though, I will be reading labels more closely and avoiding the E260 code anywhere I see it.
The Eco Mum xo