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29 August 2014

How does vinegar kill germs? And is vinegar eco friendly?

Australian Vinegar makes distilled traditional vinegar in South East Queensland.
 Answering a quick question is not so simple in some matters eco-friendly!

Because we are often suggesting vinegar as an eco friendly household cleaner and disinfectant, I wanted to understand how vinegar does kill germs.

It is the acetic acid in vinegar that kills bacteria and viruses by denaturing (chemically changing) the proteins and fats that make-up these nasties (source: Professor Peter Collignon, see below).  Most general purpose white vinegars contain about 5% acetic acid.

The stronger the acetic acid content the more effective the vinegar will be at disinfecting. 

Unfortunately, due to the lack of transparency in food labelling by mass food producers, it is hard to find a vinegar that states the acetic acid percentage or even what it is made from.  Generally the ingredients just say "Vinegar".  You may find some boutique brands of cooking vinegar that do give the percentage. 

Some "vinegar" is made from petrochemicals (but will be labelled "Imitation vinegar")

What we are presented with as vinegar today is not necessarily the vinegar "that our grandmothers used to clean with".  As with many products in our modern world, cheap petrochemical processes are corrupting how nature intended things to be done.

All vinegar contains acetic acid.  Acetic acid is the chemical name for the naturally occurring substance that is created from distilling or fermenting a grain or plant.  However, it is also the name given to acetic acid that is made from petrochemical derivatives such as butane.

Companies such as Monsanto and BP manufacture acetic acid on large scale that involves using carbon monoxide and methanol to create a chemical reaction, or heating butane in the presence of metal ions such as manganese, cobalt and chromium, which decomposes to produce acetic acid.

This is the pure acetic acid often used in foods as an acidity regulator and is labelled E260

Given the lack of any information on the packaging, I had a hunch that "home brand" bulk white vinegar most likely contained acetic acid not made from fermented grains, rather petrochemical-derived ethanol. However, Australian Vinegar CEO, Ian Henderson, has explained that Australian Food Standards dictate that when pure acetic acid that has been made by oxidation under high temperature of Ethyl Acetate (including from oil) is mixed with water and sold as food, it must be labelled “Imitation Vinegar”.  This appears to be different to the Food Standards in the USA.

Ian is adamant 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. 

The home brand vinegar I looked at says on the label "product of Australia".  And according to the ACCC, 'Product of' means that each significant ingredient or part of the product originated in the country claimed and almost all of the production processes occurred in that country.

However, Ian does say that E260 pure acetic acid may or may not come from fermentation, but probably does not (instead coming from petrochemicals), so it is best to assume it does not.  Thus it appears worthwhile to avoid E260 in foods.

We were pleased to find an Australian vinegar maker based in south east Queensland making vinegar from distillation.  See here a post Ian has written for us to clarify any miss-information around Vinegar, Imitation vinegar, synthetic acid, acetic acid and E260.

Australian Vinegar specialises in technically challenging 'Clean Labelled' vinegar which is free from allergens, sulphites, artificial colours and flavours and all 'E' numbers.  LiraH is the retail brand of Australian vinegar and makes caramelised balsamics, wine vinegars, apple vinegars and Verjus.

Thank you to TheEcoMum blog for your detailed article on the topic of petrochemical derived acetic acid.  Please read that article if you are interested in delving further, although the information about Australian Food Standards is not correct according to Ian.

Vinegar to kill germs

Back to using vinegar to kill germs.  According to Ian Henderson, whether acetic acid is made from petrochemicals or distillation, the end product is the exact same chemical structure (the magic of chemistry).  That said, if you are wishing to reduce the use of petrochemicals in our world, the source of the ingredients is important.  For others, using any white vinegar to clean is still a far preferable solution than toxic bleaches and ammonia.

Professor Peter Collignon recommends that when cleaning at home we should keep it simple.
Rather than concentrating on disinfecting or killing the bugs, we should focus on cleaning with hot soapy water and good old-fashioned elbow grease to physically scrub away organic material.
"You've got to clean the surface first and that's usually enough. Then you have to ask yourself whether you need to disinfect at all," he says.
"For the kitchen sink, for example, you probably don't need anything except cleaning."
However, that dirty chopping board might warrant disinfecting – but only after you've given it a good scrub with hot, soapy water.
It's only the act of rubbing and scrubbing a dirty chopping board that can break down the slimy matrix around certain types of salmonella, allowing the disinfectant to then get to work.
As for commercial cleaners, Collignon says we don't always need the level of disinfection in the home that these products provide.
"We over-use chemicals," he says. "Instead of using one unit, we use 1000 units, and the benefits are marginal."
"All of us would like to use a magic potion so that we don't have to use the elbow grease. But that's a false premise."
If you do need to disinfect, clean first, then disinfect with the least toxic, most biodegradable product that does the job.  Vinegar is at the least toxic and most biodegradable end of the scale when it comes to disinfectants.

I have yet to find in Australia any "cleaning vinegar" labelled with a stronger concentration of acetic acid such as you can find in the United States.  Nor have I found any vinegars promoting that they are made from "non petrochemical sources" as is also happening in the States.  Perhaps due to the fact in Australia it would need to be labelled Imitation Vinegar.

With your consumer purchasing power and questioning of the companies selling "vinegar" on Australian shelves we can achieve greater transparency in labelling.

Ian Henderson has two science degrees and a diploma in vinegar making from Austria. Ian was awarded a Churchill fellowship to study vinegar making in Europe. Ian is the CEO and principal Vinegar Maker at Australian Vinegar. 
Professor Peter Collignon, infectious disease physician at the Australian National University's Medical School, who was interviewed for and ABC article

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.


Chris said...

As far as I know in the UK all non brewed vinegar must be labeled Non Brewed Condiment although it can be sold for human consumption

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