Vinegar is a condiment used for everything from flavoring fish and chips to cleaning and weed control. There are many types of vinegar used for cooking and cleaning, depending on what they’re made from.
While most varieties of vinegar are made from natural sources, processing vinegar often involves petrochemicals, chemicals derived from petroleum.
What is vinegar made of?
Vinegar is made from fermenting food or alcohol, and most types of vinegar get their name from what they’re made of.
The word ‘vinegar’ comes from French words roughly translating to ‘sour wine’ for a reason. The main ingredient in vinegar is acetic acid, and water is added to dilute the acid.
High acidity in vinegar can erode tooth enamel, trigger acid reflux, and inflame the stomach and intestines. If you have vinegar with 10% or more acetic acid, it isn’t suitable for ingesting.
There are many types of vinegar and all have their own uses. The most well-known kinds of vinegar are white vinegar, malt vinegar, and balsamic vinegar. Gardeners looking to move away from pesticides and harmful weed killers might also be familiar with horticultural vinegar.
White vinegar is used primarily for cleaning and is made from grain alcohol. Generally, white vinegar is used for pickling, cleaning, and killing weeds.
Malt vinegar is made from malting barley. Compared to white vinegar, malt vinegar is milder and sweeter, and is the type of vinegar used for fish and chips. It can also be used for marinades.
Balsamic vinegar is a dark, concentrated type of vinegar made from grape must (crushed fruit juice) in Italy. Used in cooking, balsamic vinegar is aged in wooden barrels and is typically made solely from grapes or grape must blended with wine vinegar.
Horticultural vinegar is a kind of vinegar used for gardening and weed killing, with higher levels of acetic acid. This makes it unsafe for food, as the high concentration of acid will harm your stomach and intestines.
Lesser known is the use of petrochemicals in the creation of vinegar. In 1969 (last updated in 1989), the FDA issued guidelines for using “natural gas and petroleum derivatives” for synthetic alcohol in manufacturing vinegar. These vinegars cannot be labeled themselves as ‘grain alcohol’ but there isn’t any requirement to identify what they’re derived from. So any vinegar with ‘ethyl alcohol’ on the ingredients could use petrochemicals in manufacturing.
Is vinegar bad for the environment?
The question of whether vinegar is bad for the environment is more layered than a simple yes. Some kinds of vinegar are more harmful than others, especially when petrochemicals are involved.
Vinegar itself is not bad for the environment when used properly – provided they’re made from natural grain.
The safety data sheet for Heinz Pure White Vinegar shows that vinegar can be safely disposed of into sewers or mopped up with paper towels and sent to landfills (which isn’t strictly good for the environment).
However, that doesn’t mean all vinegar products are the same way. You should avoid disposing of vinegar, especially above 5% acetic acid, down the drain or into grass.
Cheap vinegar is almost always made using petrochemicals, so make sure you only buy “natural grain” vinegar. Petrochemicals contribute to environmental harm through oil spills, air pollution from burning petrochemicals, and ecosystems are harmed by digging for petroleum.
Compared to other cleaning products and weed killers, vinegar is safer for the environment and is a good alternative to synthetic products. As long as you take proper care with vinegar, you shouldn’t be at risk of harming the environment when using it as an alternative.
Does vinegar pollute water?
Dilution of vinegar is key to ensuring that it does not harm aquatic life.
For the most part, vinegar does not pollute water, and can even be used to offset harmful alkaline deposits in groundwater. High acidity in water kills fish and disrupts ecosystems.
As vinegar is made up of acetic acid it should not be put into water with fish as the pH level of water will be changed. While vinegar can be used to clean fish tanks, fish should be removed before cleaning as the acidic water will harm fish that prefer alkaline water. Without proper dilution, vinegar can dissolve snail shells, kill fish eggs, and burn a fish’s skin.
Experiments with acetic acid show that vinegar can allow bacteria to grow and alter chromium compounds, “rendering them risk-free”. Chromium is a mutagenic and carcinogenic metal, so using vinegar to convert oxidized chromate into a non-soluble state means it can safely be left in the environment without posing a risk to ecosystems. Using vinegar to clean up toxic alkaline waste will ensure that no toxic groundwater enters rivers or other water sources.
Can vinegar be used on plants?
Vinegar is one of the most popular alternatives to weed killers due to the toxic chemicals used in most chemical weed killers. The less diluted the acetic acid, the more powerful a weed killer vinegar will be. Horticulture vinegar is less diluted with over 5% acetic acid, making it deadlier to weeds.
Many weed killers use carcinogenic chemicals like glyphosate. The safety data sheet for Roundup Path Ready To Go identifies small quantities as “low environmental hazard” but repeatedly advises not disposing of down drains, sewers, ditches, and waterways. It includes notes on toxicity to wildlife, furthering how much it should not be used near wildlife.
All-natural vinegar uses no toxic chemicals but it’s nonselective – meaning it doesn’t differentiate between plants and will kill more than just weeds. When used as a weed killer, it’s important to apply vinegar to the weeds you want to get rid of and avoid grass or other plants. You can use a brush to paint vinegar onto the targeted weeds.
Wait for sunny days to use vinegar on weeds, as the weed needs to be saturated with vinegar (which rain would wash away) before the sun helps break down the weed.
Vinegar is best as a weed killer on patios or walkways so it doesn’t affect any surrounding plants. You need to apply vinegar multiple times, especially if you’re trying to get rid of perennial weeds like dandelion. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 5% and 10% concentrations of vinegar could kill weeds within the first two weeks of life, while older plants “required higher concentrations of vinegar to kill them”.
Is vinegar bad for wildlife?
Concentrated vinegar used for weed killing harms wildlife and insects, though is less toxic than chemical weed killers. When sprayed on soil, the pH level of the dirt is raised, making it difficult for plants to grow there but also results in leaching aluminum from the dirt. Aluminum can be beneficial or toxic to wildlife and plants, depending on what relies on that soil.
Ingesting vinegar can harm wildlife just as it can harm a human. While vinegar can be used against bacteria and fungi that are potentially harmful to wildlife, it can also irritate skin and airways or even destroy tissue at greater concentrations.
Using 10% or more concentrated vinegar is not advised if you have pets or know that animals may ingest them. 5% vinegar is safer and less harmful to animals, but should still not be disposed of into ponds or waterways.
Are vinegar fumes harmful?
Vinegar fumes alone are not harmful unless you use concentrated vinegar.
However, vinegar and bleach mixed together create chlorine gas which is very dangerous. Chlorine gas can burn skin, cause difficulty breathing, and more. Never mix cleaning products with vinegar unless you are absolutely sure it is safe to do so.