The simplest cheese I teach to make and the simplest cheese that people make all over the world…is made with vinegar.
Or is it made with synthetic alcohol derived from petroleum or natural gas which is then used to make vinegar?
For all of you researchers who are reading, I need help figuring this all out.
Here is a little brief history: I taught a class to Gretchen and Ciara on Sunday. Gretchen asked what type of vinegars could be used in the process of making the cheese I was teaching. I responded with my new knowledge on the variations in vinegars. Gretchen asked me if I knew vinegar was made from coal tar.
EXCUSE ME? Yuck!!! No! I did not know that!
We proceeded to discuss the fact that the store brand vinegars I have used (suspiciously)do not have an ingredient label. And, they don’t work right in the cheese. And, that’s why I now use only Heinz distilled white vinegar, because it works like I expect it to, and because the label proudly says, “Made with only the best sun ripened grains,” or something along those lines.
Huh. Gretchen agreed to do some research on the issue, and soon after she got home from class, she sent me an email including this information from the FDA website (here is the link if you want to go directly to the source.)
CPG Sec. 555.100 Alcohol; Use of Synthetic Alcohol in Foods
Increasing quantities of alcohol (ethyl alcohol) have been made synthetically from natural gas and petroleum derivatives.
Questions about the suitability of synthetic alcohol for use in manufacturing vinegar arose as early as l948. By Administration Information Letter No. 90, dated January 28, l949, the districts were advised that we seriously doubted that a product made from synthetic alcohol could be appropriately regarded as a type of vinegar.
Early in l957 the Director, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax division, Internal Revenue Service asked for comment on the suitability of synthetic alcohol for use in foods and drugs. Our comments in a letter dated February 5, l957, signed by Mr. M. R. Stephens, who was then Director, Bureau of Enforcement, included the following paragraphs:
“Ethyl alcohol is recognized in the U.S. Pharmacopeia, one of the official drug compendiums under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act; consequently, ethyl alcohol intended for drug use must comply with the standards and tests laid down in the Pharmacopeia. Since the Pharmacopeia does not place any restrictions as to the method of manufacturing ethyl alcohol, synthetic alcohol which complies with the standards and tests set forth in the official monograph may legally be distributed for drug use.
“We consider that the situation with respect to foods is different. We believe that consumers generally expect the alcohol in food products to have been produced from fermented food substances, such as grains, fruit, etc., and that they do not expect their foods to contain ‘alcohol’ produced from petroleum gas.
“For this reason, we have advised inquirers that we do not regard this synthetic alcohol as a suitable food ingredient. This position, however, has not been the subject of any court review.
In reply to many letters from industry and from members of Congress, we consistently advised that we considered synthetic alcohol unsuitable for food use.
Questions have been raised as to whether we can or should continue to consider synthetic alcohol unsuitable for food use. In order to secure more information, we wrote to the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Division, Internal Revenue Service. Their reply included the following paragraphs:
“Presently, we authorize the manufacture of vinegar from ethyl alcohol synthesized from natural gas or petroleum derivatives. It is our opinion that most of the distilled spirits used in the production of vinegar are derived from natural gas and petroleum. When such alcohol is used in the production of vinegar, we would consider any reference to ‘grain alcohol’ or ‘neutral grain spirits’ would be misleading for the alcohol and also the name ‘grain vinegar’ would be misleading, except for connoting strength, e.g., 40-grains.
“When alcohol is used in the production of beverage products, our regulations require that the source of the alcohol be shown on the label except for cordials and liqueurs. Incidentally, I might add that most of the alcohol used in the production of medicinal preparations and flavors is synthetic.”
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.
Any labeling reference to synthetic alcohol as “grain alcohol” or “neutral grain spirits” is considered false and misleading.
Reissued: 12/3/73, 10/1/80
Now, the way I understand this after reading it slowly 2 times, is that in 1949 and 1957, it was recommended, and apparently agreed upon that synthetic alcohol should not be used in the production of foods (including vinegar). But then, at some point (date not specified), a branch of the IRS??? recommended that it was fine to use in foods, so the FDA went ahead and changed their policy???
It seems a little (a lot) wishy-washy to me. But, I will be the first to tell you that this is the only reading I have done on the issue, other to find out that vinegar is not taxable.
So please, I’d love for you to jump in and comment if you have anything to add…mostly, hopefully, because you know about this stuff or because you’ve done a little more research. A lot of us have our opinions (me included) about the sketchy nature of food these days, but instead of commenting your opinion, please only comment if you have actual factual knowledge on the subject.
Just the facts, man. Just the facts.
Thanks in advance, and thanks for the future of my cheesemaking classes. I would really prefer NOT to be feeding my family and my students cheese made with petroleum or natural gas.
– The Goat Cheese Lady