Acetum (vinegar extract)

Vinegar: the Vintage Solvent

… he should eat hot pieces of bread, dipped in dark wine and oil, drink very little, and labor much, and live on well-fed pork, boiled with vinegar, so that he may be able to endure hard exercises. – Hippocrates

Long before and after Hippocrates, herbalists concocted aceta, or vinegar extracts, to cure their ills. As distilled alcohol became more widely available, herbal tinctures, or alcohol-based extracts, replaced aceta in the market. Tinctures, being stronger, longer-lasting, hygienically reliable, and more consistent than aceta dominate the botanical extract market today.

However, aceta deserve a second look. Shrewd herbalists value vinegar as an inexpensive, simple, safe, natural, and alcohol-free solvent, for extracting botanicals. Centuries of using vinegar for medicinal extracts substantiates its effectiveness and safety for home remedies.

What makes vinegar a good solvent for botanical extracts? Vinegar contains mostly water and a little acetic acid. Together, these two solvents, or media for dissolving botanical compounds, effectively extract a broader suite of phytochemicals, or herbal compounds, without the effects that alcohol has on cell membrane proteins.

Water. Water dissolves so many substances that it’s known as the “universal solvent.” The popularity and effectiveness of herbal teas, or infusions, attests to water’s effectiveness as a solvent. Water’s polar molecules weakly bond with each other and readily split many molecules into their positive and negative ions. Mineral salts, for example, readily dissolve in water. Lipids and other non-polar substances do not readily dissolve in water.

Water constitutes 88 to 96 percent of most vinegars. Many phytochemicals, or chemicals, like anthocyanins, phenols, tannins, and flavonoids, that come from plants, readily dissolve in water. The iced tea sold with meals in many restaurants, black tea (Camellia sinensis), contains flavonoids, a group of water soluble pigments. Evidence suggests that they reduce the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood[1].

Acetic Acid. Acetic acid makes up four- to twelve-percent of vinegar’s content, making it slightly acidic. Alkaloids, an important group of medicinally important plant chemicals, dissolve better in such acidic liquids, as do many mineral salts and alkaline phytochemicals. The acetic acid provides the additional benefit of prolonging the shelf life of the extract by fixing the solution and keeping it stable over time.

Other Ingredients. Vinegars also contain other ingredients in trace amounts and add to the medicinal and nutritional value of the extract. The abundance and type of trace components varies with the type of vinegar used in the acetum.

Although tinctures dominate the liquid botanical market, herbalists still value vinegar as a solvent to extract phytochemicals. Its added nutritional and medicinal qualities make it is a safe and versatile solvent that for internal and external use. The taste of many aceta make them great additions to spice rack as well as the medicine cabinet!

author: Jeffrey R. Bacon

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[1] Deka, A., and J. A. Vita. 2011. Tea and cardiovascular disease, Pharmacological Research 64 (2): 136-145; (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.phrs.2011.03.009.), reviewed 5 October 2014.

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