Apple cider vinegar, especially in its raw, naturally fermented form, has become a bit of a darling of the health food world. And, to be fair, there are a lot of good things about cider vinegar: in its raw, unpasteurized form it’s a naturally fermented food that is very low in calories, rich with probiotic bacteria, and it contributes a nice acidity and sourness to food that can bring out flavors.
Apple cider vinegar is not, however, a miracle food. While one well-known brand of apple cider vinegar claims (on their website) that their vinegar “Helps control weight”, “Helps remove body sludge toxins”, “Helps promote youthful, healthy bodies” and “Promotes digestion & pH Balance”, there have been few scientific studies of the possible health benefits vinegar and, within those studies, the results are mixed.
(Sounds like we should keep apples for eating, and make vinegar out of less delicious ingredients!)
One of my old professors at ASU, Carol Johnston, did a pair of studies with vinegar that are now widely cited as proof of vinegar’s health benefits. While the studies did find some positive benefits, especially in the realm of blood sugar control for people with diabetes, the results were not entirely positive. Vinegar did not help control blood sugar when taken with a dose of simple sugars, for example, and the studies found no influence on insulin levels, glucose levels or A1C levels at two hours after ingestion.
Furthermore, the samples were very small (between 9 – 14 people), and as of yet I have not heard of successful repeat studies, a critical part of the scientific method. Even Dr. Johnston, an advocate of vinegar in general, acknowledges that the effects are relative modest, and many of the myths about vinegar are just that: myths. She also notes “acetic acid is a poison and can have toxic effects.”
(As an aside, her suggested dose is one to two tablespoons diluted in a glass of plain water. Drinking vinegar straight can cause serious problems in your mouth, throat, and lungs, and mixing vinegar with anything other than water may neutralize the acetic acid.)
On that note, Dr. Johnston has shown that the possible health benefits of vinegar come from the acetic acid – not any “enzymes” or probiotic elements that the fancy vinegars claim to have. That means that any vinegar, from your supermarket gallon of distilled white vinegar to the hippie-est raw organic product probably have the same effects noted in Dr. Johnston’s studies, so there’s no reason to buy a more expensive product to get the purported health gains.
Finally, a recently published article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics addressed the results of the collected evidence across five different published studies. The conclusion of the article were simple: “…there is a lack of evidence at this time to recommend vinegar as an adjuvant treatment…”, and the author also noted potential health risks from long-term vinegar consumption.
On the other hand, there is a possible new use for vinegar that may be of great interest to athletes, especially those involved in endurance events. Recent scientific work suggests that muscle cramping, the bane of many a long-distance runner or soccer player on a hot day, may be at least partially resolved by taking a shot of vinegar (usually in the form of pickle juice). The mechanism is not known, by the current hypothesis is that the vinegar may disrupt with the misfiring nerve cells that can cause cramps. Interestingly enough, several similar studies found no scientifically significant link between dehydration or electrolyte imbalances and cramps, which are both usually blamed for muscle cramping.
Vinegar may not be the panacea that some claim, but there are some potential benefits, especially for athletes, and it may be worth experimenting with pickle juice or your own salt and vinegar concoction if cramps are a regular problem for. In addition, it may be worth considering a shot of pickle juice in the middle of a competitive event if you are cramping – it may not taste good but may also be the most effective option out there.