Vinegar nation | Inquirer Opinion
Human Face

Vinegar nation

A momentary distraction from the ballot-counting issues but a valid cause for concern was the recent announcement by the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) of its findings that 14 or so of the close to 20 vinegar brands they tested have synthetic acetic acid in them, and are not in fact made from pure fermented plant extract. Only three brands reportedly passed the test for not containing synthetic acetic acid.

PNRI is an institute of the Department of Science and Technology.


The reports sent consumers clamoring to know the rogue brands with acetic acid, but so far none has been revealed to address their worries.

I have always suspected that some vinegar brands have synthetic acetic acid in them, but my 20 units (no kidding) of college chemistry could not enable me to discover which ones. To be safe, I always throw away the vinegar that comes with the chicharon pack that I buy ever so rarely, and I make my own dipping sauce or sawsawan. (I know how to make vinegar from rotting bananas, by the way.)


I grew up in the province where vinegar was made from either nipa sap or tuba, the coconut brew that made besotted men see visions and sing bawdy ballads in the moonlight. Tree bark gives tuba its reddish color and aids in fermentation. Fermented tuba becomes vinegar.

I have the book “Discovering Tuba” (University of the Philippines Press, 2015) by professor Arturo C. Pacho. I bought a copy because I fancied myself doing a coconut-related fiction story — and I did.

Tuba or coconut table vinegar does not always come plain. There is bottled, ready-to-serve pinakurat or sinamak, which has lots of chili and other explosive spices that can set one’s mouth on fire.

Filipinos have a penchant for food made with souring ingredients, whether they be vinegar or sour fruits. We use vinegar as marinade for fish and meat and for preparing adobo, paksiw, kinilaw, sisig, etc. To sour our soupy sinigang, we use tamarind (the fruit or leaves), kamias, kalamansi, guavas, green mangoes, batuan (which Iloilo has plenty of), tomatoes, etc.

But despite the sourness in our Filipino diet, we are perhaps the smiling-est people on this planet. We even use sourness as a figure of speech to describe the attractiveness of a person way past his or her prime, as in “may asim pa” — that is, that he or she still has what it takes. To do what, I don’t know.

So when news broke out that a number of local vinegar brands have synthetic acid added to them, people of this sour-loving nation became concerned. Their question: Is synthetic acetic acid in vinegar carcinogenic or bad for the health?

Things got fuzzy when scientists from agencies concerned refused to disclose the brands they found to have acetic acid. Curiouser and curiouser things got when someone from the PNRI, in his effort to calm consumers, said that industrial acetic acid is not all that different in chemical structure (or something to that effect) from organic or plant-based vinegar. Cited was insulin for diabetics that used to come from animals but now comes in synthetic form, etc.


Questions: So why did they make the tests on vinegar brands in the first place? Were they testing for acetic acid alone or for something else? And why announce their worrisome findings? And then why try to assuage people’s fears by saying natural and synthetic aren’t all that different from each other, anyway? As in, okay naman pala. So why do they not want to disclose the brands? Don’t purists who want only organically sourced ingredients have the right to know?

Were the testing and the disclosure of their findings therefore exercises in futility? Was this a case of mislabeling only? These had to do with everyday food, by the way, not pharmaceuticals.

I have great respect for scientists who work in extreme settings, they whose discoveries are often unsung but have major impacts on our lives, they who are supposed to have little or no vested interests except to be of service to humankind. Pray tell us what you know every now and then.

As to the comebacking Senate reelectionists, may asim pa ba kayo?

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TAGS: Human Face, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, PNRI, synthetic acetic acid, vinegar
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