Composition of non-brewed condiment

Reginald SmithAll About Vinegar, Non-brewed condiment, Uncategorized, Vinegar Industry2 Comments

Image from Wikimedia; photo by Matthias Meckel

Ah, what would fish and chips be without malt vinegar non-brewed condiment? Non-brewed condiment is more quintessentially British than even malt vinegar since while malt vinegar is produced and sold here in the US and other places, non-brewed condiment has a much more limited range of geographies where it can be sold since it is not fermented by bacteria like normal vinegars. In the US, this makes it illegal for retail sale, even as “non-brewed condiment” though non-fermented acetic acid can be used as a food additive in some limited cases.

Non-brewed condiment has been around for decades. It has an interesting legal history where the British malt vinegar industry fought very hard to exclude it from the ‘vinegar’ designation due to cost competition. The government was originally hands off but finally required it to not be labeled as vinegar in 1949* (see story below).

Despite this, its status as the un-vinegar wasn’t really known but is periodically popularized such as Tom Scott’s YouTube video with 2.2M views and counting. It was also raised by viewers in the comments of Adam Ragusea’s recent vinegar history video (disclosure: I am a participant)!

So this article gives the full details on non-brewed condiment and how it is made, contrasting this with white distilled/spirit vinegar. For information on the ingredients and production processes of white distilled/spirit vinegar, see my blog post here. In short, it is made of distilled alcohol fermented with bacteria in industrial vinegar plants to vinegar.

Non-brewed condiment has a different origin. In short, it is made from food grade glacial acetic acid, diluted with water, colored with caramel, and with some salt or spices added for flavoring.

The origin of the acetic acid that is used in non-brewed condiment is the massive scale acetic acid production operations that make acetic acid for industrial uses like making PET for plastic bottles. The most common process for making acetic acid on these scales is a complex process reacting methanol with carbon monoxide in the presence of a metal catalyst. This catalyst determines the name of the process. The older Monsanto process uses a rhodium catalyst while the newer Cativa process uses iridium. As a quick historical notes, these catalysts are both cheaper than the first known catalyst to produce acetic acid, platinum, discovered by Sir Humphrey Davy in the 19th century.

This acetic acid is purified and distilled. Most is shunted for industrial customers but some is made food grade for food manufacturers including non-brewed condiment makers. The standard for food grade glacial acetic acid most commonly used is based on the Food Chemicals Codex which specifies a purity by weight of no less than 99.5% as well as max allowable levels for arsenic, heavy metals, and a few other requirements. A good example is this specification from BP Chemicals which is one of the largest suppliers of food grade glacial acetic acid to non-brewed condiment manufacturers.

Once sold to the non-brewed condiment manufacturer it is diluted with water down to 4-8% (4.5 -5% is usually considered ready use while higher acidities are for ease of shipping and require subsequent dilution). In addition, color is added with caramel, usually caramel E105c. The amount varies by recipe but cannot exceed 50,000 mg / kg of condiment per the FAO Codex Alimentarius. This is actually the same maximum as for some balsamic vinegars that can have up to 50,000 mg/kg of caramel E105d. In addition some salt or spices can be added to better mimic malt vinegar.

While non-brewed condiment and white distilled/spirit vinegar both have primary components of acetic acid, there are subtle chemical differences that give an improved flavor and other properties to naturally brewed vinegar. These are not known to make a health difference though and white vinegar/non-brewed condiment of similar acidities can be used in a similar way as long as caramel coloring and possible higher sodium are not an issue. A summary of the differences between plain acetic acid and distilled vinegar was made by the FDA in the 1960s:

In April 1968, members of our Bureau of Science reviewed the literature to determine whether there are present in vinegars prepared from distilled alcohol components not present in acetic acid solutions. In a study by L. W. Aurand, et al, and reported in JAOAC (1965), eleven components were identified from five samples of distilled vinegar. The volatile components consisted of aldehydes, ketones, esters, and alcohols. Acetaldehyde, acetone, ethyl acetate, and ethyl alcohol were present in all samples of vinegar analyzed.

In many countries, the local vinegar market is stymied by (sometimes illegal) imports of glacial acetic acid from China and India. Additionally, it can be used to adulterate or increase the acidity of vinegar products.

*From Slater, A.W. (1970). The Vinegar Brewing Industry. Industrial Archaeology: The Journal of the History of Industry and Technology. 7, 292-309.

Artificial vinegar, or dilute acetic acid…was marketed under the names of ‘table vinegar’, ‘pure vinegar’, and even ‘malt vinegar’, despite the fact that in 1928 it was decided, in a High Court case, that the sale of acetic acid as ‘table vinegar’ was a contravention of the Food and Drugs Act, and in 1937 the decision of the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street, that it was ‘not permissible to sell as vinegar or table vinegar a substance which is not the product of fermentation’, was upheld at the London Sessions. After this decision acetic acid was sold as ‘Non-brewed Vinegar’, but in 1949, in a test prosecution at Bow Street under the Merchandise Marks Act, the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate decided that ‘Non-brewed Vinegar’ was in fact a false trade description, his decision being upheld in the King’s Bench Division, whereupon the trade association concerned announced that in the future their product would be sold as ‘Non-brewed Condiment.’ It has now ceased to be a threat to the manufacturers of brewed vinegar….

2 Comments on “Composition of non-brewed condiment”

  1. Interesting blog post. I am from the UK and most of the population here do not even realise that what they are pouring on their chips in the Chip Shops is not even real vinegar. Chip Shops used to often have Malt Vinegar but that seemed to die out in around 1980s and 1990s and i have not seen Malt Vinegar in any Chip Shops for years now.

    What is interesting is that here in the UK almost all the Chip Shops in England use the coloured (with Ammonia Caramel Colouring added) NBC where as almost all the Chip Shops in Scotland use the uncoloured (just Water and Acetic Acid only) NBC instead. I am not really that sure why this is but for some reason the English prefers it coloured and the Scottish prefers it uncoloured. Some chip shops around the UK also have the Onion Flavoured one and Pickling Spice Flavoured one but these are not really that common. They will normally just use the plain flavoured ones.

    The NBC that is sold in shops (which is only really sold in some of the larger supermarkets and in greengrocers and some other independent shops) is always the plain uncoloured version with just Water and Acetic Acid only and no colouring and no flavouring. It must be incredibly cheap to produce though. In my local greengrocers they sell a huge 5L bottle (the plain flavoured and uncoloured version) of NBC for just £0.99 for that huge bottle. All of the other shops i have seen it in charge similar prices. In the same shop they also sell a huge 5L bottle of Spirit Vinegar but that is £1.99 so i suppose the cheapness of NBC is why it has become so popular with Chip Shops and food manufacturers.

    I have two questions about this Non Brewed Condiment if you do not mind.

    I have been to the USA a couple of times and i know that i have seen Acetic Acid listed in the ingredients of quite a few packaged food products in supermarkets over there so i am surprised that they do not allow the Non Brewed Condiment to be sold! Normally the UK has far stricter food laws than the USA rather than the other way round! Can i ask is there any particular reason why they will allow it in packaged food but not sold on its own as Non Brewed Condiment like we do in the UK? I was just wondering what exactly makes this illegal if they are not calling it vinegar and the Acetic Acid is allowed in food products?

    Also i was reading your blog post about making your own Spirit Vinegar at home and was just curious could someone make their own Non Brewed Condiment at home from scratch? Could you produce your own Food Grade Glacial Acetic Acid and then just dilute that to 5% Acidity to create Non Brewed Condiment at home? Or does the production of the Food Grade Glacial Acetic Acid require a factory and specialist machines? I was just wondering if someone had the right stuff this would be possible or would you say it is not possible to create the Food Grade Glacial Acetic Acid at home? I am not planning to but just simply curious! It would certainly be interesting to do if it is possible though!

    Great blog post by the way. I have been aware of NBC for a long time but never knew much about how it was made.

    1. Thanks for the reply! Vinegar legislation is an interesting and surprisingly complicated topic here in the US. I stated ‘illegal’ though it is more complicated than that but still not likely. In short, the FDA does allow the use of acetic acid up to 9% in condiments. Also, the FDA historically allowed diluted acetic acid to be labeled as ‘imitation vinegar’. The latest case of this to my knowledge goes back to the late 1980s in Puerto Rico where a packager was allowed to call diluted acetic acid ‘imitation vinegar’. So it would seem clear that you can do it, so what is the problem?

      First, vinegar makers are cautious since there was a case, all the way to the Supreme Court, warning against mis-branding vinegar (I wrote about it here). Second, the FDA, while accepting non-fermented acetic acid as an ingredient, strongly warns against using it where vinegar is expected and forbids it in pickling. Finally, and the big issue here, is the raft of state regulations forbidding it.

      You are correct that UK and EU food regulations tend to be more consumer vs. industry friendly as compared to here in the US. What often can happen though is individual states can pass laws more stringent than the federal government. In this case, many states including important states like New York have bans on making or selling “imitation vinegar”. More widespread are state laws forbidding artificial coloring of any vinegar or imitation vinegar. So colored NBC would be illegal to sell in many states and even clear NBC is illegal in states than ban “imitation vinegar”. Most of these laws are 100+ years old and were pushed by the American cider vinegar manufacturers when large scale cheap acetic acid (then wood vinegar) came onto the market. Imitation vinegar has barely been tried since the 1940s I think though I guess if you found somewhere that didn’t forbid it and labeled it imitation vinegar, you could do it.

      Regarding making glacial acetic acid at home, it is near impossible and honestly would not be worth it even if you could since food grade glacial acetic acid is so cheap. I don’t know how distribution in the UK works but I think someone could probably get 5L of food grade glacial acetic acid and then dilute it. However, glacial acetic acid is very caustic and dangerous. Gloves, full cover goggles, are required at a minimum. Due to the caustic effect on skin, full plastic protection is probably a good idea too. It would be better to buy acetic acid at a lower strength, 30% max, to make NBC at home.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *