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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."

Disgusting, right?

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?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 7, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Is That Right?  
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Oh for pete's sake. Did you know that water comes from lakes, and that fish poop in lakes? Should we stop drinking water that comes from lakes? By the time petroleum-derived vinegar starter has been through the refinement and purification process, it is not only 'indistinguishable' from grain alcohol, it is the *exact same* chemical compound. And by the way, petroleum is organic and natural--it just comes from much older plant material.

Posted by: n_mcguire | August 7, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

From a chemist's point of view, white vinegar is acetic acid in water. In addition to synthetic ethanol (made from the addition of water to ethylene), synthetic acetic acid can be made by addition of carbon monoxide to methanol (in a process invented by Monsanto). These processes are used commercially to supply industrial customers. They have potential to supply food use markets too if the FDA approves those processes. These materials are more correctly labelled natural gas chemicals than petroleum based chemicals.

Posted by: Schooner1 | August 7, 2009 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Natural gas is also used as a feedstock for a variety of other consumer products, including certain medications. Would I care if my vinegar was synthesized from natural gas? In a word---no.

Posted by: oldguy2 | August 7, 2009 12:59 PM | Report abuse

Not even slightly concerned. Everything we consume is a chemical, without exception. Where it happens to come from may introduce a slightly different mix of impurities in some cases, but when you distill the stuff that is no longer an issue.

Heinz' marketing people deserve to be taken to the woodshed for trying to play on peoples' fears like this.

Posted by: JeffRandom | August 7, 2009 1:59 PM | Report abuse

As folks have pointed out, petroleum started out as plant material, just like rice and apples. The acetic acid we use in the lab is almost certainly from a petroleum source - it is purer than the stuff in my kitchen.

This reminds me of an "agriculture vs petroleum" war story told by my organic chemistry teacher. He said that the ag. folks passed a law making it mandatory that ethyl alcohol be the starting material for all plastics made (in the hopes of limiting feedstock to plant-based alcohol - corn at that time). The petroleum companies simply changed a few steps so that ethanol was produced from the oil/gas feed (many ways to do this) and then changed to whatever feedstock was needed. Probably apocryphal, but instructive.

By the way, the vinegar made from petroleum is "organic" ;)

Posted by: drmary | August 7, 2009 4:55 PM | Report abuse

It doesn't concern me except do we really need one more use for a non-renewable energy source when we have a renewable source? Of course, we fertilize the renewable one with petroleum based products so I guess it's all moot anyway.

Posted by: sandushinka | August 7, 2009 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Artificial food dyes, flavorings and preservatives are also synthesized from petroleum. I don't think they're good for you, but anyone who'd swallow these ads is probably already swallowing gobs petroleum added to corn starch to make it look and taste like food.

Posted by: jackaroe | August 7, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

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