If ever a food could literally tingle your taste buds, it would be vinegar. Like many fermented foods—cheese, yogurt, wine, and pickles—vinegar's distinctive flavor is the result of a process called alcoholic fermentation, in which sugar is converted to alcohol (similar to wine or ale). Vinegar can be made from any fruit or other food, such as starchy grains, that contain sugar. During the fermentation process, harmless bacteria are introduced into the mix, converting the alcohol component of the liquid into an acid. This two-fold fermentation process is how vinegar gets its sour flavor and "tingliness."

By law, any product that calls itself "vinegar" on the label, be it plain old distilled white or flavored raspberry red, must be at least 4 percent acid. The more astringent vinegars may be as high as 8 percent. Specialty, or flavored, vinegars usually run around 5 -6 percent acidity. Labeling laws also dictate the "starting" ingredients that must be used to make specialty, or flavored, vinegars. For instance, any bottle labeled "wine vinegar" must be made from the two-fold fermentation of grapes. These types of food laws ensure that you know you're getting what the label tells you, and that you get what you pay for when buying specialty vinegars.

Cider vinegar, or apple cider vinegar, is made from apple juice fermented to apple cider, then into an alcoholic malt beverage, or ale, and then into a highly acidic vinegar. Other fruit vinegars are made from the juice of peaches, pineapple, berries, and bananas that is first fermented into wine. Malt vinegar is made from malted barley or other grains. (During the malting process, the starch in barley is converted to a sugar called maltose, which is then fermented into vinegar.) Rice vinegar, or rice wine vinegar, starts off with rice, is milder than most other types of vinegar, and is sometimes seasoned with other ingredients. In Middle Eastern cuisines, vinegars made from raisins and dates are quite popular. Balsamic vinegar is made from white grapes, aged like fine wine in wooden casks. True, pure balsamic vinegar is aged and mellowed for many years. Many less expensive, commercial brands that have not undergone a long aging process and may be a mixture of ingredients not found in more authentic balsamic varieties are sold in supermarkets.

Vinegar in all its forms has many uses in food preparation and cooking. It's a common ingredient in condiments, marinades, sauces, salad dressings and snack foods and, if unflavored, can be a handy substitute for lemon juice. Because of its acidic nature, vinegar can be stored almost indefinitely, though the recommended maximum shelf life after opening is about one year.

A study published in a 2005 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that vinegar eaten with carbohydrates at meals improves blood sugar control in healthy people. The researchers from this study and similar studies concluded that fermented and pickled foods and vinegar dressings have a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels when eaten with carbohydrates such as bread and potatoes that normally tend to raise blood sugar more than other foods.

Although many health claims have been made about vinegar with regard to weight loss and "cleansing" diets, the biggest benefit may be that it is so low in calories, you can consider it a calorie-free food. Although it is considered a healthy addition to the diet, with qualities that help boost the flavor of other healthy foods and make them more fun to eat, there is no good science to back up claims of using vinegar for any other dietary or medicinal purposes. Flavored and wine vinegars are slightly higher in calories than distilled white or cider vinegars and, if left unprocessed and unfiltered, may contain trace amounts of minerals such as iron and copper. But they still get more kudos for their intense flavor in exchange for very few calories.



Leeman, M. et al. "Vinegar Dressing and Cold Storage of Potatoes Lowers Postprandial Glycaemic and Insulinaemic Responses in Healthy Subjects." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005 Nov;59(11):12566-71. Web. 9 Feb 2011

Ostman, E. et. Al "Vinegar Supplementation Lowers Glucose and Insulin Responses and Increases Satiety After a Bread Meal in Healthy Subjects." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2005 Sep;59(9):983-8. Web. 9 Feb 2011

The Vinegar Institute: Today's Vinegar. 2005. Web. 9 Feb 2011