The Healing History of Vinegar
Vinegar is a dilute solution of acetic acid that results from a two-step fermentation process. The first step is the fermentation of sugar into alcohol, usually by yeast. Any natural source of sugar can be used. For example, the sugar may be derived from the juice, or cider, of fruit (such as grapes, apples, raisins, or even coconuts); from a grain (such as barley or rice); from honey, molasses, or sugar cane; or even, in the case of certain distilled vinegars, from the cellulose in wood (such as beech). The word “vinegar” comes from the French word for “sour wine.”
What you have at the end of this first phase, then, is an alcohol-containing liquid, such as wine (from grapes), beer (from barley), hard cider (from apples), or another fermented liquid. (The alcoholic liquid used to create a vinegar is generally reflected in the vinegar’s name — for example, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, malt vinegar, or cider vinegar.)
In the second phase of the vinegar-production process, certain naturally occurring bacteria known as acetobacters combine the alcohol-containing liquid with oxygen to form the acetic-acid solution we call vinegar. Acetic acid is what gives vinegar its sour taste. Although time-consuming, this second phase of the process will happen without human intervention if the alcoholic liquid is exposed to oxygen long enough.
Thus, it is not surprising that the first vinegar was the result of an ancient accident. Once upon a time, a keg of wine (presumably a poorly sealed one that allowed oxygen in) was stored too long, and when the would-be drinkers opened it, they found a sour liquid instead of wine. The name “vinegar” is derived from the French words for “sour wine.”
Fortunately, our resourceful ancestors found ways to use the “bad” wine. They put it to work as a cure-all, a food preservative, and later, a flavor enhancer. It wasn’t long before they figured out how to make vinegar on purpose, and producing it became one of the world’s earliest commercial industries.
The use of vinegar as medicine probably started soon after it was discovered. Its healing virtues are extolled in records of the Babylonians, and the great Greek physician Hippocrates reportedly used it as an antibiotic. Ancient Greek doctors poured vinegar into wounds and over dressings as a disinfectant, and they gave concoctions of honey and vinegar to patients recovering from illness. In Asia, early samurai warriors believed vinegar to be a tonic that would increase their strength and vitality.
Vinegar continued to be used as a medicine in more recent times. During the Civil War and World War I, for example, military medics used vinegar to treat wounds. And folk traditions around the world still espoused vinegar for a wide variety of ailments. Natural-healing enthusiasts and vinegar fans continue to honor and use many of those folk remedies.
Early Wines and Vinegars
Scientists believe wine originated during the Neolithic period (approximately 8500 b.c. to 4000 b.c., when humans first began farming and crafting stone tools) in Egypt and the Middle East. Large pottery jugs dating back to 6000 b.c. that were unearthed in archeological digs possessed a strange yellow residue. Chemical analysis revealed the residue contained calcium tartrate, which is formed from tartaric acid, a substance that occurs naturally in large amounts only in grapes. So the traces strongly suggested the jugs were used to make or hold wine.
Considering the slow grape-pressing methods used at that time and the heat of the desert environment, grape juice would likely have fermented into wine quite quickly. Likewise, the wine would have turned to vinegar rapidly, if conditions were right.
So how did these ancient people — who had only recently (in evolutionary terms) begun planting their own food and fashioning tools — manage to understand and control fermentation enough to prevent all their wine from turning to vinegar before they could drink it? Based on evidence found in archeological excavations, scientists believe that the first winemakers used jars with clay stoppers that helped control the fermentation process.
A complete analysis of the residue left in those ancient wine jugs also showed the presence of terebinth tree resin, which acts as a natural preservative and therefore would have helped slow the transformation of wine into vinegar. In Neolithic times, terebinth trees grew in the same area as grapes, and their berries and resin were harvested at the same time of year. So it’s quite plausible that some of the berries or resins may have inadvertently become mixed with the grape harvest. Still unclear is whether the ancient winemakers ever made the connection between the resins and the delayed conversion of wine into vinegar and began purposely adding the tree berries to their wine.
Vinegar’s zesty taste offers some health benefits, but not all that some people claim. Go to the next page to learn about the nutritional value of vinegar.
Misconceptions About Vinegar’s Health Benefits
The folk- and natural-healing claims made for vinegar through the ages have been almost as plentiful and varied as those made for garlic. Even in the current era of high-tech medicine, some proponents of natural healing still encourage traditional uses of vinegar. They have also added certain newly recognized or newly defined (within the past hundred years or so, that is) medical conditions to the list of health concerns for which they recommend vinegar.
Other present-day vinegar fans view it as an overall health-boosting, disease-fighting tonic and recommend mixing a teaspoon or tablespoon of cider vinegar with a glass of water and drinking it each morning or before meals. (Apple cider vinegar is the traditional vinegar of choice for home or folk remedies, although some recent claims have been made for the benefits of wine vinegars, especially red wine vinegar. Unless otherwise specified, though, the vinegar we’ll be referring to is apple cider vinegar.)
Perhaps most amazingly, vinegar is heralded as a potential healer of many of today’s most common serious ailments. Devotees believe vinegar can help prevent or heal heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, aging-related ailments, and a host of other conditions. They say it is full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes, and pectin and often attribute vinegar’s medicinal effects to the presence of these ingredients. Among the specific claims made for apple cider vinegar are that:
• It reduces blood cholesterol levels and heart-disease risk. Apple cider vinegar fans say it contains pectin, which attaches to cholesterol and carries it out of the body, thus decreasing the risk of heart disease. In addition, many vinegar proponents say it is high in potassium, and high-potassium foods play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease by helping to prevent or lower high blood pressure. Calcium is also an important nutrient for keeping blood pressure in check, and as you will learn shortly, vinegar is sometimes promoted as having a high calcium content. Many also claim vinegar helps the body absorb this essential mineral from other foods in the diet.
• It treats diabetes. Apple cider vinegar may help control blood sugar levels, which helps to ward off diabetes complications, such as nerve damage and blindness. It also might help prevent other serious health problems, such as heart disease, that often go hand-in-hand with diabetes.
• It fights obesity and aids in weight loss. Some marketers proclaim that apple cider vinegar is high in fiber and therefore aids in weight loss. (Fiber provides bulk but is indigestible by the body, so foods high in fiber provide a feeling of fullness for fewer calories.) A daily dose is also said to control or minimize the appetite. (Ironically, some folk traditions advise taking apple cider vinegar before a meal for the opposite effect–to stimulate the appetite in people who have lost interest in eating.)
• It prevents cancer and aging. Apple cider vinegar proponents declare it contains high levels of the antioxidant beta-carotene (a form of vitamin A) and therefore helps prevent cancer and the ill effects of aging. (Antioxidants help protect the body’s cells against damage from unstable molecules called free radicals; free-radical damage has been linked to various conditions, including coronary heart disease, cancer, and the aging process.)
• It prevents osteoporosis. Advocates say apple cider vinegar releases calcium and other minerals from the foods you eat so your body is better able to absorb and use them to strengthen bones. Vinegar allegedly allows the body to absorb one-third more calcium from green vegetables than it would without the aid of vinegar. Some fans also say apple cider vinegar is itself a great source of calcium.
Based on these claims, apple cider vinegar certainly seems to be a wonder food. And it’s understandably tempting to want to believe that some food or drug or substance will make diabetes, obesity, cancer, and osteoperosis go away with little or no discomfort, effort, or risk.
However, as a wise consumer, you know that when something sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. So when it comes to your health–especially when you’re dealing with such major medical conditions–it’s important to take a step back and look carefully at the evidence.
A Closer Look at the Claims
With such dramatic claims made for it, you would think that vinegar would be high on the lists of medical researchers searching for the next breakthrough. Yet in the past 20 years, there has been very little research about using vinegar for therapeutic health purposes.
Granted, a lack of supporting scientific research is a common problem among many natural and alternative therapies. But even the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the U.S. government’s National Institutes of Health that was created specifically to investigate natural or unconventional therapies that hold promise, has not published any studies about vinegar, despite the fact that there has been renewed interest in vinegar’s healing benefits recently.
So without solid scientific studies, can we judge whether vinegar provides the kinds of dramatic benefits that its promoters and fans attribute to it? Not conclusively. But we can look at the claims and compare them to the little scientific knowledge we do have about vinegar.
Those who have faith in apple cider vinegar as a wide-ranging cure say its healing properties come from an abundance of nutrients that remain after apples are fermented to make apple cider vinegar. They contend that vinegar is rich in minerals and vitamins, including calcium, potassium, and beta-carotene; complex carbohydrates and fiber, including the soluble fiber pectin; amino acids (the building blocks of protein); beneficial enzymes; and acetic acid (which gives vinegar its taste).
These substances do play many important roles in health and healing, and some are even considered essential nutrients for human health. The problem is that standard nutritional analysis of vinegar, including apple cider vinegar, has not shown it to be a good source of most of these substances.
One tablespoon of apple cider vinegar per day is the typical therapeutic dose recommended, so the nutrients found in this amount of the vinegar are shown in the second column of the table. Just to be sure that the small amount of vinegar in a tablespoon isn’t the sole explanation for the apparent lack of nutrients, the table also includes the nutritional analysis of a larger amount (half a cup) of vinegar. You’ll notice that even at that higher amount, vinegar does not appear to include significant amounts of most of the nutrients that are claimed to be the source of its medicinal value.
To put all this information into some context, the column at the far right in the table shows the daily amounts needed by a typical adult who consumes 2,000 calories per day. (Requirements haven’t been established for some of the other substances that are often cited as contributing to vinegar’s beneficial effects.)
One milligram of calcium in one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar does not come close to the 300 milligrams of calcium in eight ounces of milk, as some promoters of apple cider vinegar claim. In fact, it supplies only a tiny fraction of the 1,000 milligrams a typical adult needs in a day. Vinegar also contains little potassium.
In terms of pectin, the type of soluble fiber that is said to bind to cholesterol and help carry it out of the body, apple cider vinegar contains no measurable amounts of it or of any other type of fiber. So it would seem that pectin could not account for any cholesterol-binding activity that vinegar might be shown to have.
Do apple cider vinegar’s secrets lie in the vitamins it contains? No. According to the USDA, apple cider vinegar contains no vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, or folate.
What about some of the other health-boosting substances that are alleged to be in vinegar? According to detailed nutritional analyses, apple cider vinegar contains no significant amounts of amino acids. Nor does it contain ethyl alcohol, caffeine, theobromine, beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein, or zeaxanthin.
It might seem like apple cider vinegar doesn’t contain enough nutrition to be beneficial, but that is simply not the case. Go to the next page to find out how vinegar has been proven to benefit the digestive system.
How Vinegar Affects Digestion
So if vinegar doesn’t actually contain all the substances that are supposed to account for its medicinal benefits, does that mean it has no healing powers? Hardly. As mentioned, so little research has been done on vinegar that we can’t totally rule out many of the dramatic claims made for it. Although we know vinegar doesn’t contain loads of nutrients traditionally associated with good health, it may well contain yet-to-be-identified phytochemicals (beneficial compounds in plants) that would account for some of the healing benefits that vinegar fans swear by. Scientists continue to discover such beneficial substances in all kinds of foods.
But beyond that possibility, there appear to be more tangible and realistic–albeit less sensational–ways that vinegar can help the body heal. Rather than being the dramatic blockbuster cure that we are endlessly (and fruitlessly) searching for, vinegar seems quite capable of playing myriad supporting roles–as part of an overall lifestyle approach–that can indeed help us fight serious health conditions, such as osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease.
Increasing Calcium Absorption
If there is one thing vinegar fans, marketers, alternative therapists, and scientists alike can agree on, it’s that vinegar is high in acetic acid. And acetic acid, like other acids, can increase the body’s absorption of important minerals from the foods we eat. Therefore, including apple cider vinegar in meals or possibly even drinking a mild tonic of vinegar and water (up to a tablespoon in a glass of water) just before or with meals might improve your body’s ability to absorb the essential minerals locked in foods.
Vinegar may be especially useful to women, who generally have a hard time getting all the calcium their bodies need to keep bones strong and prevent the debilitating, bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. Although dietary calcium is most abundant in dairy products such as milk, many women (and men) suffer from a condition called lactose intolerance that makes it difficult or impossible for them to digest the sugar in milk. As a result, they may suffer uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, such as cramping and diarrhea, when they consume dairy products. These women must often look elsewhere to fulfill their dietary calcium needs.
Dark, leafy greens are good sources of calcium, but some of these greens also contain compounds that inhibit calcium absorption. Fortunately for dairy-deprived women (and even those who do drink milk), a few splashes of vinegar or a tangy vinaigrette on their greens may very well allow them to absorb more valuable calcium. Don’t you wish all medications were so tasty?
Controlling Blood Sugar Levels
Vinegar has recently won attention for its potential to help people with type 2 diabetes get a better handle on their disease. Improved control could help them delay or prevent such complications as blindness, impotence, and a loss of feeling in the extremities that may necessitate amputation. Also, because people with diabetes are at increased risk for other serious health problems, such as heart disease, improved control of their diabetes could potentially help to ward off these associated conditions, as well.
With type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells become resistant to the action of the hormone insulin. The body normally releases insulin into the bloodstream in response to a meal. Insulin’s job is to help the body’s cells take in the glucose, or sugar, from the carbohydrates in food, so they can use it for energy. But when the body’s cells become insulin resistant, the sugar from food begins to build up in the blood, even while the cells themselves are starving for it. (High levels of insulin tend to build up in the blood, too, because the body releases more and more insulin to try to transport the large amounts of sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells.)
Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage nerves throughout the body and otherwise cause irreversible harm. So one major goal of diabetes treatment is to normalize blood sugar levels and keep them in a healthier range as much as possible. And that’s where vinegar appears to help.
It seems that vinegar may be able to inactivate some of the digestive enzymes that break the carbohydrates from food into sugar, thus slowing the absorption of sugar from a meal into the bloodstream. Slowing sugar absorption gives the insulin-resistant body more time to pull sugar out of the blood and thus helps prevent the blood sugar level from rising so high. Blunting the sudden jump in blood sugar that would usually occur after a meal also lessens the amount of insulin the body needs to release at one time to remove the sugar from the blood.
A study cited in 2004 in the American Diabetes Association’s publication Diabetes Care indicates that vinegar holds real promise for helping people with diabetes. In the study, 21 people with either type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance (a prediabetes condition) and eight control subjects were each given a solution containing five teaspoons of vinegar, five teaspoons of water, and one teaspoon of saccharin two minutes before ingesting a high-carbohydrate meal. The blood sugar and insulin levels of the participants were measured before the meal and 30 minutes and 60 minutes after the meal.
Vinegar increased overall insulin sensitivity 34 percent in the study participants who were insulin-resistant and 19 percent in those with type 2 diabetes. That means their bodies actually became more receptive to insulin, allowing the hormone to do its job of getting sugar out of the blood and into the cells. Both blood sugar and blood insulin levels were lower than normal in the insulin-resistant participants, which is more good news. Surprisingly, the control group (who had neither diabetes nor a prediabetic condition but were given the vinegar solution) also experienced a reduction in insulin levels in the blood. These findings are significant because, in addition to the nerve damage caused by perpetually elevated blood sugar levels, several chronic conditions, including heart disease, have been linked to excess insulin in the blood over prolonged periods of time.
More studies certainly need to be done to confirm the extent of vinegar’s benefits for type 2 diabetes patients and those at risk of developing this increasingly common disease. But for now, people with type 2 diabetes might be wise to talk with their doctors or dietitians about consuming more vinegar.
Replacing Unhealthy Fats and Sodium
As you’ll discover in chapter four, there are some delicious varieties of vinegar available. Each bestows a different taste or character to foods. The diversity and intensity of flavor are key to one important healing role that vinegar can play. Whether you are trying to protect yourself from cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or stroke, or you have been diagnosed with one or more of these conditions and have been advised to clean up your diet, vinegar should become a regular cooking and dining companion. That’s because a tasty vinegar can often be used in place of sodium and/or ingredients high in saturated or trans fats to add flavor and excitement to a variety of dishes.
Saturated and trans fats have been shown to have a detrimental effect on blood cholesterol levels, and experts recommend that people who have or are at risk of developing high blood pressure cut back on the amount of sodium they consume. So using vinegar as a simple, flavorful substitute for these less healthful ingredients as often as possible can help people manage blood cholesterol and blood pressure levels and, in turn, help ward off heart disease and stroke.
You’ll find detailed advice about including more vinegar in your diet in chapter four, and you’ll discover delicious, good-for-you recipes at the end of the book that put vinegar to use. But the following suggestions will give you some sense of how vinegar can help you create and enjoy a diet that may lower your blood cholesterol and blood pressure and decrease your risks of heart disease and stroke:
• Make a vinegar-based coleslaw rather than a creamy, mayonnaise-based one. Because mayonnaise is made up almost completely of unhealthy fats and cholesterol, this easy switch can dramatically reduce the cholesterol and fat in this popular side dish.
• Enjoy healthier fish and chips. Instead of dipping fish in tartar sauce and drenching fries in salt and ketchup, splash them with a little malt vinegar. (Also consider baking the fish and the potatoes instead of frying them.) Because it contains mayonnaise, tartar sauce is high in unhealthy fats and cholesterol.
• Use vinegar-based salad dressings instead of creamy,mayonnaise-based dressings. Choose or make a flavorful herb salad dressing that contains mostly water, vinegar, and just a touch of oil to help it adhere to your salad veggies.
• Opt for vinegar instead of mayonnaise or other common, bad-fat-laden sandwich spreads to add flavor and moisture to sandwiches.
• When making a dish that contains beans, add a little vinegar near the end of cooking–it will dramatically decrease the amount of salt you’ll need. It perks up the flavor of beans without raising your blood pressure.
• You can also use vinegar as a tangy marinade for tenderizing less-fatty cuts of meat. Choosing meat with less fat on the edges and less marbling within is one of the easiest ways to trim unhealthy fats from your diet. Unfortunately, meats that don’t have as much marbling tend to be a little tougher. So vinegar can do double duty by adding a dash of zing as it tenderizes.
Making a Healthy Diet Easier to Swallow
Some of our strongest natural weapons against cancer and aging are fruits and vegetables. The antioxidants and phytochemicals they contain seem to hold real promise in lowering our risk of many types of cancer. Their antioxidants also help to protect cells from the free-radical damage that is thought to underlie many of the changes we associate with aging. Protected cells don’t wear out and need replacing as often as cells that aren’t bathed in antioxidants. Scientists think this continual cell replacement may be at the root of aging.
• The U.S. government’s 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommend that the average person eat about two cups of fruit and two-and-a-half cups of vegetables every day. One way to add excitement and variety to all those vegetables is to use vinegar liberally as a seasoning.
• Rice vinegar and a little soy sauce give veggies an Asian flavor or can form the base of an Asian coleslaw.
• Red wine vinegar or white wine vinegar can turn boring vegetables into a quick-and-easy marinated-vegetable salad that’s ready to grab out of the refrigerator whenever hunger strikes. Just chop your favorite veggies, put them in a bowl with a marinade of vinegar, herbs, and a dash of olive oil, and let them sit for at least an hour. (You don’t need much oil to make the marinade stick to the veggies, so go light, and be sure you choose olive oil.)
• Toss chopped vegetables in a vinegar-and-olive-oil salad dressing before loading them on skewers and putting them on the backyard grill. The aroma and flavor will actually have your family asking for seconds — of vegetables!
• After steaming vegetables, drizzle a little of your favorite vinegar over them instead of adding butter or salt. They’ll taste so good, you may never get to the meat on your plate.
By enhancing the flavor of vegetables with vinegar, you and your family will be inclined to eat more of them. And that–many researchers and doctors would agree–will likely go a long way toward protecting your body’s cells from the damage that can lead to cancer and other problems of aging.
Removing Harmful Substances from Produce
Some people are concerned that eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables may lead to an unhealthy consumption of pesticide and other farm-chemical residues. Vinegar can lend a hand here, too. Washing produce in a mixture of water and vinegar appears to help remove certain pesticides, according to the small amount of research that has been published. Vinegar also appears to be helpful in getting rid of harmful bacteria on fruits and vegetables.
To help remove potentially harmful residues, mix a solution of 10 percent vinegar to 90 percent water (for example, mix one cup of white vinegar in nine cups of water). Then, place produce in the vinegar solution, let it soak briefly, and then swish it around in the solution. Finally, rinse the produce thoroughly.
Do not use this process on tender, fragile fruits, such as berries, that might be damaged in the process or soak up too much vinegar through their porous skins.
Some pesticide residues are trapped beneath the waxy coatings that are applied to certain vegetables to help them retain moisture. The vinegar solution probably won’t wash those pesticides away, so peeling lightly may be the next best option. Some research suggests that cooking further eliminates some pesticide residue.
Add Flavor, Not Calories
Vinegar contains very few calories–only 25 in half a cup! Compare that to the nearly 800 calories you get in half a cup of mayonnaise, and you have a real fat-fighting food. So if you’re looking to lose weight, using vinegar in place of mayonnaise whenever you can will help you make a serious dent in your calorie (and fat) intake.
Vinegar can also help you have your dessert and cut calories, too. Use a splash of balsamic vinegar to bring out the sweetness and flavor of strawberries without any added sugar. Try it on other fruits that you might sprinkle sugar on–you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the difference a bit of balsamic vinegar can make. And for a real unexpected treat on a hot summer evening, drizzle balsamic vinegar–instead of high-fat, sugary caramel or chocolate sauce–on a dish of reduced-fat vanilla ice cream. Can’t imagine that combination? Just try it.
The Sour That’s Really Sweet
Obviously, much more research needs to be done to investigate all of vinegar’s healing potential. But even with the evidence available, it’s clear that vinegar holds some healing powers. It is not a too-good-to-be-true miracle cure, but it can be used in a variety of ways to enhance your efforts to fight serious, chronic diseases (and as noted in the box on pages 75 and 76, it may lend a healing hand against some common, minor discomforts).
In that sense, vinegar is like many of the other lifestyle adjustments, drugs, and therapies used in our battles against common, chronic, and often life-threatening diseases: It is just one of a variety of important steps that can help us defend ourselves. But unlike many of the other elements that go into treating or preventing disease, vinegar is one you’ll certainly enjoy incorporating into your life.