Stronger vinegar for greener cleaning

Heinz is putting out a stronger white vinegar and calling it "cleaning vinegar." Business Wire
Heinz is putting out a stronger white vinegar and calling it "cleaning vinegar." Business Wire
Posted: June 26, 2012

When Molly Rouse-Terlevich, a Bryn Mawr mother of two, goes to clean the kitchen counter, she reaches for a spray bottle.

In it is a solution of half water, half white vinegar.

When she cleans the floor, same stuff.

The bathroom, same stuff.

She runs vinegar through the dishwasher to reduce the buildup from hard water, and adds it to especially dirty loads of laundry.

And she's been at it for several years.

"We use it for virtually everything except the cleaning that would require slightly more grit," she said. Which is when they add baking soda.

I've been thinking about vinegar because Heinz has come out with a stronger version of its white distilled vinegar. They're calling it "cleaning" vinegar.

Instead of having 5 percent acetic acid, it has 6 percent, which boosts the strength by 20 percent.

After making vinegar for more than 140 years, what a marketing brainstorm!

The company manufactures more than 7.5 million gallons of vinegar annually for American households, according to its website. Although our grandmothers and great-grandmothers knew about cleaning with vinegar, I'm sure most of the sales are culinary. So adding a dedicated cleaning category opens up a vast realm.

Still, uh, does it work, or is this greenwashing? And doesn't this suggest the old 5-percent solution didn't work as well as purported?

Answering the first question will take a new raft of peer-reviewed studies on the matter, adding to those on regular white vinegar.

By and large, those have found that, yes, vinegar kills bacteria. But they also found, in general, that bleach and other commercial disinfectants do a better job.

I always wondered how vinegar worked. So the next two paragraphs are for technical types:

According to a 2011 report by Canada's National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health, the acid in vinegar crosses the cell membrane of bacteria, then prompts a release of protons, which causes the cell to die.

If you're on a first-name basis with your household bacteria, vinegar is thought to be most effective against shigella, salmonella, E. coli, and other "gram-negative" bacteria, according to the report. Gram-positive bacteria have cell walls that are tougher to crack.

Jennifer McGurrin, brand manager for Heinz vinegar, said the new formula is a balance between cleaning performance and odor. The more acidic the vinegar is, the better it cleans, but the stronger it smells, although the smell does dissipate quickly.

The increased acidity would, indeed, boost the cleaning properties, figures Alexandra Gorman Scranton, science director at Women's Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit that has long pushed natural cleaning products.

She has no problems with the old vinegar, but concedes that the new one might be a better solvent, cutting cooking grease more effectively. And it might be useful on tough jobs like toilet stains.

Either way, with safety being the issue, you have to weigh vinegar's lesser effectiveness against the toxicity of stronger cleaners.

Rouse-Terlevich knows which side she's on. "I think too sterile's not good, plus toxins are bad for you," she said. "I'm not particularly interested in getting any of them anywhere near me."

She also sees vinegar as a way to reduce waste. She buys it by the gallon and has used the same spray bottle for years. Compare that to the people who buy bottle after bottle of concoctions from the cleaning aisle, then toss the containers, even if they go into the recycling bucket.

Vinegar also is touted as being cheaper than most cleaners. The new extra-strength kind sells for $3.79 a gallon — the same as for Heinz's regular white distilled vinegar — which works out to about three cents an ounce.

So I'm finally going to have to give vinegar a try.

I've always meant to, and somehow … I dunno. Confession time here.

Looking at the plethora of vinegar recipes in books and online, including www.womensvoices.org, it seemed more complicated than I wished. When I clean, I want to reach for a bottle, not a manual.

But as a result, the cleaning bin under my kitchen sink is a visual cacophony of chemicals. Toilet, tub, and tile cleaners. Sink scrubbers. Stovetop polishers. Ugh.

Whereas Rouse-Terlevich uses her 50-50 mixture for pretty much everything.

Heinz's McGurrin says the new stuff — she even uses it full strength — makes tile and linoleum floors shine. Ditto stainless appliances. It dissolves the spills from boil-overs on the stove.

I didn't find the new cleaning vinegar at two grocery stores I visited, but McGurrin said it's in Wal-Mart so far. The launch is progressing.

Getting started with vinegar opens the door to more possibilities, apparently.

Kristin Sullivan, Philadelphia's energy manager, uses vinegar to clean her windows. She wipes with newspaper — less lint than a cloth — then puts the paper into her worm-composting bin.

"GreenSpace" appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey's "Well Being" column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com or @sbauers on Twitter. og at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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