|Australian Vinegar makes distilled traditional vinegar in South East Queensland.|
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 are 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 hard to find a vinegar that states the acetic acid percentage or even what it is made from. Generally the ingredients just say "Vinegar". Some "boutique" brands of cooking vinegar do give the percentage.
Some "vinegar" is made from petrochemicals
What we are presented with as vinegar today is not necessarily the vinegar "that our grandmothers used to clean with". As with so many things in our modern world, cheap petrochemical processes are corrupting how nature intended things to be done.
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”.
Ian says that E260 pure acetic acid may or may not come from fermentation, but probably doesn’t come from fermentation, so it is best to assume it doesn’t.
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. If you are trying to eliminate petrochemicals from your home, then the choice of which vinegar may be important to you. 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.If you do need to disinfect, clean first, then disinfect with the least toxic, most biodegradable product that does the job. Vinegar and alcohol wipes are at the least toxic and most biodegradable end of the scale when it comes to disinfectants.
"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."
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 the Australian standards are more
But with your consumer purchasing power and questioning of the companies selling "vinegar" on Australian shelves without transparent labelling, it can change.
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.