Acidic and non-parasitic

Who doesn’t enjoy a healthy dose of vinegar with their French fries? While most people would disagree, and say that ketchup is their condiment of choice for crispy fried potatoes, consider the second ingredient in ketchup after tomatoes. (Hint: it’s vinegar.)

Well the next time you have vinegar, whether it’s in ketchup, salad dressing, or on its own, think about what could be living in it – a non-parasitic microscopic organism called the vinegar eel (Turbatrix aceti).

What a vinegar world!

Vinegar is a liquid consisting mainly of acetic acid (CH3CO2H) and water, produced during the fermentation process of ethanol by acetic acid bacteria. Basically anything that has sugar in it and is exposed to air will turn into vinegar.

From the early days of Greek physician Hippocrates, vinegar is deeply rooted in history and comes from the French compound word “vin aigre” (sour wine). Today, besides being used for food, vinegar has many other uses:

  • As a cleaning agent
  • As a natural herbicide
  • To help manage diets by increasing satiety (the feeling of fullness)
  • For medicinal purposes (managing diabetes, as a clotting agent, healing burns and skin inflammations, or for relief of headaches caused by heat)

But what’s living in MY vinegar?

Vinegar eels are round worms we call nematodes and not actual eels. They feed on the live bacteria and yeast culture used to produce vinegar.

vinegar eels

Vinegar Eel

These free-living nematodes can be found in unfiltered vinegar and are often raised and fed to fish fry as a live food.

They are about 1/16th of an inch (2mm) long and feed on the bacteria of apples, so apple cider vinegar is a great source of these yummy microworms.

The good news is that vinegar eels are normally filtered or pasteurized prior to bottling and don’t make it into the meals of most consumers. Rest assured the next time you pour some dressing on your salad or bite into a pickle, the vinegar eel didn’t make the cut and you won’t have any extra protein floating its way into your mouth.

Vinegar eels at home

Looking to see these worms in action anyway? The good news is that raising your very own vinegar eels is easy.

Place an apple into a glass container large enough to hold one part water to one part apple cider and leave the experiment for about a month. Make sure to put a lid on the glass container so that no other bugs or critters fall victim to your yummy science experiment.

You can put a small hole in the lid if you wish. You can use tap water for this experiment; however, you should let it stand for a few days to let the chlorine evaporate from it.  The apple will provide some extra nourishment.

All you need now is a microscope and a few friends to witness this unbelievable event, as hundreds of little eel-like nematodes swim through your very own homemade vinegar, believe it or not!

Brought to you by Stephen Smith, Staff Scientist at Science North.


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