Is That Right? Vinegar Can Come From Petroleum
Lending new meaning to the concept of oil and vinegar, print ads for Heinz Distilled White Vinegar ("the all natural choice for food") raise the alarming-sounding notion that vinegar "can come from petroleum."
The ad features a brown-shaded image of oil derricks alongside a bright and cheery photo of green cornstalks growing in the field, with the headline "Which field does your vinegar come from?"
"Vinegar can come from natural sources like corn and apples. Or it can come from petroleum. And labels don't have to tell you which," the ad continues. Then it tells us, "To learn more, search vinegar and petroleum." The graphics suggest we conduct that search on the Internet.
Well, I was curious, so of course I Googled "vinegar and petroleum," only to find a handful of entries, none of them authoritative. One did lead me, though, to the FDA's rules about vinegar, which I also received from an FDA media contact. In short, it is true that petroleum can be used to start the vinegar-making process. Like any "starter" for vinegar, it's used to create alcohol, which is then oxidized with bacteria to convert the alcohol to vinegar. (That's a gross oversimplification; read more about the process here.)
Here are excerpts from the FDA's paper, which was written in 1969 and updated in 1989:
Practically and scientifically, pure ethyl alcohol synthesized from natural gas or petroleum products does not differ from that obtained by fermentation with subsequent distillation. Furthermore, foods in which one is used cannot be distinguished objectively from those in which the other is used.
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.
It's also true that the FDA doesn't require manufacturers to note on their labels whether petroleum is used as a starter.
As a practical matter, the FDA spokesperson told me in an e-mail that the FDA's not aware of any manufacturers that use petroleum to start their vinegar. And Jeannie Milewski, executive director of the Atlanta-based Vinegar Institute, an international group that represents vinegar manufacturers -- including Heinz -- and suppliers to that industry, confirms that "We are not aware of anyone who uses petroleum as a starting material for vinegar."
In any case, Milewski tells me, petroleum can only be used to start white distilled vinegar. Rice vinegar comes from rice, cider vinegar comes from apples, and so on.
So, it appears that Heinz is telling the truth -- but perhaps raising red flags where none are necessary.
Are you concerned about the prospect of vinegar's coming from petroleum?
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