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What happens when you add vinegar to red cabbage?

Adding vinegar to red cabbage results in a fun and colorful science experiment that demonstrates the principle of acid-base indicators. Red cabbage contains a water-soluble pigment called anthocyanin that changes color depending on the pH of its environment. When vinegar, an acidic substance, is added to the red cabbage, the anthocyanin pigment changes from its original reddish-purple color to shades of pink and magenta. This simple experiment allows us to observe a chemical reaction and understand how anthocyanin pigments can act as acid-base indicators.

What are acid-base indicators?

Acid-base indicators are chemical compounds that change color depending on whether they are in an acidic or basic (alkaline) solution. Many naturally occurring pigments act as acid-base indicators. Anthocyanins, a type of pigment found in many red, blue, and purple plants, are common acid-base indicators. When anthocyanins are exposed to an acidic environment, they turn red. In a neutral or alkaline environment, they turn greenish or yellow. This makes anthocyanins useful as pH indicators – they allow us to determine the general pH of a solution based on color.

Some common anthocyanin-containing acid-base indicator plants are:

  • Red cabbage
  • Purple grapes
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Onion skins
  • Hydrangeas

The pigment in red cabbage anthocyanin is called flavin. Flavin exhibits a wide range of colors across the pH scale, making red cabbage juice a good, readily available acid-base indicator.

How do acid-base indicators work?

Acid-base indicator compounds are weak acids. When dissolved in water, they partially dissociate into ions. How much they dissociate is determined by the pH (acidity or basicity) of the solution. In acidic solutions, the equilibrium shifts towards the undissociated acid form of the indicator. In basic solutions, the equilibrium shifts towards the ionized form of the indicator. Because the ionized and un-ionized forms have different molecular structures, they appear different colors.

For example, the flavin pigment in red cabbage:

  • In acidic conditions, the pigment appears red
  • In neutral conditions, the pigment appears purple
  • In basic conditions, the pigment appears blue/green

By calibrating the color change to known pH values, we can determine the approximate pH of an unknown solution just by observing its color.

Why does red cabbage change color with vinegar?

Now that we understand how acid-base indicators work, we can explain why adding vinegar to red cabbage water produces a color change. Here’s a step-by-step explanation:

  1. Red cabbage contains anthocyanin pigments like flavin. These pigments act as acid-base indicators.
  2. We extract the flavin pigment by soaking red cabbage leaves in hot water and making a concentrated “red cabbage juice” indicator solution.
  3. The flavin pigments naturally exist in their red-colored acidic form in the cabbage juice.
  4. When we add vinegar, which is an acidic solution, the pigments remain in their red acidic state.
  5. If we added a base like baking soda instead, the pigments would change to purple or blue-green colors.

So in summary, the red cabbage indicator turns pink or magenta when vinegar is added because the flavin pigments are responding to the increased acidity of the solution.

How to do the red cabbage indicator experiment

The red cabbage chemistry experiment is easy to do at home with just a few materials:

  • 1 head red cabbage
  • Knife and cutting board
  • Pot and stove or microwave
  • Strainer
  • Clear containers or cups
  • Vinegar
  • Baking soda (optional)
  • Water
  • Spoon for mixing

Here are step-by-step instructions:

  1. Chop up the red cabbage into small pieces. You’ll need about 2 cups chopped.
  2. Boil the cabbage in a pot of water for 10 minutes to extract the anthocyanin pigments and create the indicator solution.
  3. Strain out the cabbage chunks through a strainer, cheesecloth, or coffee filter.
  4. Divide the liquid into clear containers like cups or jars.
  5. Test vinegar and baking soda: In separate containers, add a spoonful of vinegar to one, and a pinch of baking soda to the other. Mix and observe the color changes.
  6. Optional pH testing: Test known pH solutions like lemon juice or laundry detergent to see the full range of color change.

Once you mix in the vinegar or other acidic solutions, you should see the anthocyanins change to a pink-magenta color. Adding baking soda or alkaline solutions will turn the liquid green, yellow, or blue. Have fun experimenting with fruits, juices, cleaners, and other household liquids to see the range of colors you can produce!

The chemistry behind the color change

Now let’s take a closer look at the chemistry behind this red cabbage indicator experiment. Here are some key points:

  • The primary pigments in red cabbage are anthocyanins like flavin.
  • Flavin contains conjugated bonding that allows it to reflect certain wavelengths of visible light and absorb others.
  • When flavin is protonated under acidic conditions, its structure changes.
  • This structural change shifts the wavelengths of light that can be reflected and absorbed.
  • As a result, more red light and less green/blue light is reflected back to our eyes.

Essentially, adding protons (H+ ions) to the pigment under acidic conditions alters its light absorbing properties. The cabbage molecules structurally change to reflect more red wavelengths instead of purple or blue.

A similar process happens in reverse when flavin loses H+ ions under alkaline conditions. The molecule shifts its configuration to reflect more green and blue wavelengths instead of red.

Understanding how chemical structure relates to light absorption helps explain why acid-base indicators change color. Simple household items like red cabbage let us observe these neat molecular processes in action!

Other ways to demonstrate acid-base chemistry

While the red cabbage experiment is a popular acid-base indicator demo, there are lots of other options you can try:

  • Make an anthocyanin indicator with other purple/red plants: beets, purple carrots, radish, cherries, blueberries, etc.
  • Extract chlorophyll from spinach leaves or grass to make a green indicator that turns yellow in acids.
  • Use pre-made chemical pH indicator solutions like phenolphthalein, litmus, or universal indicator.
  • Observe pH-induced color changes in natural substances like tea, coffee, turmeric, grapes, lemons, etc.
  • Test the pH of household products like shampoo, soap, juice, antacids, cleaning products.
  • Make DIY pH paper with cabbage juice or other plant pigments.

The key is choosing pigments or compounds that visibly change color across the pH range. Anthocyanin pigments are readily accessible in many common fruits and vegetables, making them perfect for homemade pH indicators.

Why is this chemistry experiment useful?

Beyond the fun color changes, the red cabbage pH experiment teaches some key scientific concepts:

  • Acids and bases have different properties chemically.
  • We can measure and quantify acidity/basicity using the pH scale.
  • Indicators help us determine pH based on observable changes.
  • Molecular structure influences color and light absorption.
  • Chemical equilibrium shifts based on environment.

For early science education, this activity fosters curiosity about acids and bases in everyday substances. As a kitchen chemistry demo, it shows how cooking ingredients like vinegar and baking soda contain acids and bases. The visual color cues help reinforce what an acid and base “looks” like.

At more advanced levels, it leads to deeper discussions on molecular structure, conjugation, absorbance/reflectance, and equilibrium dynamics. So the humble red cabbage pH experiment can be a meaningful learning tool at many age levels!

Fun ways to extend the experiment

Once you’ve mastered the basics, try these creative twists on the classic red cabbage indicator:

  • Treat the cabbage juice like a pH “secret message” ink. Write or draw with it using q-tips or brushes. Reveal the hidden message by painting over it with baking soda water.
  • Use the indicator to make DIY pH paper strips. Soak filter paper or coffee filters in the juice. Let dry and use to test pH of unknowns.
  • Mix the cabbage juice with laundry detergent, shampoo, or liquid soap to make colorful bubble solutions.
  • Layer the indicator in a clear jar with oils, alcohols, and vinegars to create a visually stunning pH phase separation.
  • Infuse the cabbage water into ice cubes, vinegar, or other liquids to make pH changing drinks and potions.

The key is being creative and thinking about everyday uses for natural pH indicators. Anthocyanins lend themselves perfectly for art, DIY chemistry, and science magic tricks.


The simple red cabbage experiment reveals some complex and beautiful chemistry. It teaches core scientific concepts centered on acid-base interactions using common household ingredients. Best of all, it engages our senses of sight, smell, and touch through the vivid and vibrant color changes. When working with children or students, always supervise for safety, but allow ample room for curiosity and exploration. Use this classic chemistry demonstration as a jumping off point for deeper discussion, follow-up projects, and continued science discovery.