VINEGAR is one of the substances which has been used worldwide from very ancient times. It was known among the Babylonians, ancient Indians, Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans and used in cooking, medicinally and as a general cleanser and sanitizer. The most famous Biblical reference to it was when Jesus was mockingly given wine vinegar while he was on the cross and during the Black Death pandemic in Europe during the Middle Ages, some doctors prescribed its use as a body cleanser.
The word “Vinegar” derives from two French words – ‘vin’ meaning wine and ‘aigre’ meaning sour, and indeed, “sour wine” is an apt description of it. The widespread use of it partly derives from the ease with which it is produced: It is made from any carbohydrate source that can undergo fermentation. Such carbohydrates include apples and grapes, commonly used in Europe and oats, barley, rice and even beer.
The basic production of vinegar is fairly simple: The yeast in the carbohydrates ferments the natural food sugars into alcohol, then the acetic acid bacteria (acetobacter) converts the alcohol into acetic acid. The fermentation period could be weeks or months, depending on the kind of vinegar one expects to produce. The alcohol content of food-grade vinegar ranges from five per cent to two percent and the acetic acid content would be between four per cent to six per cent. If the acetic acid content goes beyond 10 per cent it becomes unhealthy to use.
Until World War II, Guyana imported its vinegar mostly from Canada and Britain. During the war, however, vinegar — like so many other imported foodstuffs — became scarce or impossible to obtain and this forced local people to produce substitutes. The substitute vinegar which was produced was done by the drug stores which merely mixed acetic acid with water. There was no standard or control over this locally produced vinegar which could sometimes have too high a percentage of acetic acid, making it very unwholesome to use. Fortunately, this locally produced brew was used mostly to preserve peppers and in achars and chutneys and in preserving green mangoes and other green fruit. After the end of the war, some vinegar was again imported but it was more expensive than the local mixture and this led to consumers continuing to use it, though they were aware that it was inferior to real fermented vinegar.
Demerara Distillers Ltd (DDL) saw the opportunity of producing vinegar and had their laboratories work on producing a world-class product. DDL succeeded in producing a white vinegar which could easily blend with other ingredients in cooking or in use with salads and was of the highest quality. An export market became immediately available. Most Guyanese consumers now use DDL vinegar which goes under the brand name EHP Fermented White Vinegar.
In the last year or two, the big supermarkets have been promoting vinegar and have been explaining the different types of vinegar, their colour and for what they are used. There has been much talk of vinegar like apple cider, grape and malt. In Guyana, such promotion has been small since the consumer population seems to be securely committed to the DDL-produced vinegar.
Out of this promotion has however arisen two positives: the first is the emergence of a large number of recipes which use vinegar celebrating its culinary use and the second is the identification of a large number of medicinal and cleansing uses for vinegar. Among the most popular medicinal uses claimed for vinegar are: it reduces the risk of heart disease; could control high blood pressure; has an anti-tumour activity; could help to regulate blood sugar; could support healthy weight loss; and that it may have anti-microbial effects and could even fight colds. These medicinal uses are supported by Alternative Medicine but Formal Medicine has not so far given them acceptance.
Its cleansing uses have been more widely accepted and adopted and these would include cleaning of metals as in garages, mopping of floors, and killing weeds, most moulds, bacteria and germs. Among its most known side effects are that it could damage the oesophagus and tooth enamel and in general, it is a caustic substance if not used sensibly.
Vinegar has however been coeval with human civilisation and will continue its worldwide usage.