Fake vinegar
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - May 29, 2019 - 12:00am

A guy who provides hair rebonding service as a sideline uses vinegar on his hair as a conditioner. He is often teased that he should add soy sauce, garlic, pepper and bay leaf for an adobo touch, but he has the last laugh: his hair is silky soft.

Only time will tell if he will lose his hair faster than his peers because of the vinegar. We also don’t know if certain vinegar brands might cause that kind of long-term damage.

In culinary school, we were taught that not all local vinegars are created equal: one major brand has double the acidity of others so recipes must be adjusted accordingly.

Vinegars fermented from natural ingredients tend to be pricier. There’s a brand of Ilocano vinegar that’s a cut above the rest, and which I can’t replace with any other brand when I make Vigan-type longganiza at home. Unfortunately, its production seems limited since it’s not available in the big supermarket chains; I find it only in flea markets.

Balsamic vinegars, made from freshly crushed grape must, can fetch dizzying prices depending on the quality, with connoisseurs discussing the intensity and depth of the flavor. The Oracolo Gold Cap, produced in Modena, Italy, is aged for 25 years in century-old oak and chestnut barrels. Price: 350 euros for a 100-ml bottle.

I’ve never sampled this vinegar. But I think my favorite Ilocano suka, although modestly priced, can compete with the lower priced Balsamic vinegars ($5 to $30 for about 250 ml). Like the Oracolo, genuine sukang Iloko should be registered for protected denomination of origin.

In my pantry I have Philippine-made vinegars fermented from mango, strawberry and rice, apart from the more common variants from sugarcane and coconut.

But I’ve never heard of any vinegar brand being described as fake or synthetic… until recently.

Since the warning about “fake” vinegars was issued by the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology, I am heeding the warning to check my vinegar for synthetic acetic acid.

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It’s scary to be told that the synthetic acetic acid in fake vinegar is similar to what’s used in petroleum products, and can cause cancer and degenerative afflictions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Processing food to prolong shelf life has been around since the prehistoric age, when humans had to store food for the lean months, such as during winter or periods of drought. Meat, fish and certain plant products were salted, sun-dried or smoked. Humans have been fermenting rice, grapes and other agricultural crops for wines, flavoring and leavening for ages. Colors have been extracted from plants for food-grade dyes.

Later, scientists developed substances from non-food sources for similar purposes. The substances are more stable, but some have been linked to cancer and degenerative diseases.

Even people who are aware of the health risks posed by substances such as monosodium glutamate and curing salts, however, aren’t ready to give up hotdog, tocino and MSG-laden cup noodles.

The attitude is that consuming such substances in moderation can’t be hazardous to one’s health. My cookbooks on charcuterie have extensive discussions on the health risks posed by nitrates and nitrites used for meat preservation, but they suggest amounts that can be used, which are supposed to have been vetted by global food authorities for safe consumption.

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Lifestyles make people opt for processed food with long shelf life. I suspect that a fondness for hotdog, corned beef and canned meat loaf contributed to the early deaths due to cancer of some of my contemporaries who weren’t heavy smokers or drinkers. A fellow reporter at Malacañang told me, before she died at 35 of colon cancer, that the only reason she could think of for her affliction was her use of an inordinate amount of MSG in her food.

There have been periodic scandals, for example, involving the use of carcinogenic preservatives for bread and similar products. The preservatives are banned, taken out of ingredient lists, but are quickly replaced with new ones with different names but similar properties.

Why? Because the typical Filipino consumer wants his bread soft with a white crumb, and will remain so on the table at room temperature for at least a week.

This is not possible without chemical dough softeners, conditioners or whatever names are given to preserve the bread especially in the warm, humid tropics. One day there will be another health-related scandal regarding these preservatives. But as long as people want their bread to sit on the table for a week or two while remaining soft without getting moldy, the bread will need preservatives.

One of the most popular breads in Paris, shaped like a round loaf, crusty with holes in the crumb produced by long, natural fermentation, becomes hard by late afternoon. If you plan to consume it hours after purchase (the consumer lines are long), you can pop it in the freezer, in its original packaging and then in a freezer bag, and then reheat it in an oven or toaster.

But most Pinoys are not used to this way of storing bread, which does not need preservatives.

There is a natural way of prolonging bread shelf life at room temperature. But even with this method, the longest possible shelf life for bread without preservatives in our climate without affecting the quality, as far as I know, is four days. 

Long, natural fermentation, which brings out the quality and flavor of the wheat, is most pronounced in sourdough bread. This crusty bread has yet to gain popularity in our country. As the name indicates, it has a pleasantly mild acidity that reminds me of good quality natural vinegar.

The scandal over “fake” vinegars won’t change our food consumption habits overnight. But it’s something to chew on if we want to stay healthy.

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