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Sour Hype About Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar may make for a tasty salad but claims about its health benefits are tough to swallow.

It was a bestseller in 1615! “The English Huswife,” by Gervase Markham, was one of the first compilations of culinary and medical recipes ever published. Wildly popular despite the fact that at the time only about ten percent of women were literate, it offered medical advice for conditions such as “red saucy face,” “griefs in the stomach” and “pissing in bed.” The sketchy recommendations ranged from “curatives” such as simple parsley to the more exotic dried stag’s pizzle. If you are wondering, that was the Middle English word for the male appendage. Culinary activities included recipes for cooking a swan, preparing hog live pudding, and baking a currant-filled pastry known as a Banbury cake.  

Vinegar was featured in many of the recipes. There was nothing new about that, vinegar had been known as a condiment since about 5000 B.C. when some Babylonian tasted a wine that had turned sour. The term “vinegar” actually derives for the French “vin” for wine, and “aigre” for sour. By the Middle Ages, vinegar had developed a reputation not only as a flavouring, but also as a digestive aid, a dressing for wounds, and a remedy for coughs. However, Markham’s book did introduce a novelty. It had a recipe for “dry vinegar.” 

"To make dry vinegar which you may carry in your pocket, you shall take blades of green corn, either wheat or rye, and beat it in a mortar with the strongest vinegar you can get till it come to a paste; then roll it into little balls, and dry it in the sun till it be very hard; when you have an occasion to use it, cut a little piece thereof and dissolve it in wine, and it will make a strong vinegar." Amazingly, this was the prototype for one of today’s popular dietary supplements, namely apple cider vinegar in the form of pills, capsules and gummies. 

Vinegar is a liquid and can only be converted to a solid by freezing. Clearly, the supplements available are not frozen, so how can they contain vinegar in a solid form? The process used today to make dry vinegar is essentially the same as the one that Markham described. It is all about using some sort of solid matter that can absorb a liquid. Whereas Markham’s formula used cellulose found in the “blades” of grains, today’s manufacturers spray apple cider vinegar onto powdered maltodextrin. Starch is a polymer composed of hundreds of glucose molecules linked together that can with the aid of enzymes be broken down into maltodextrin, starch fragments made up of less than twenty glucose units. Maltodextrin readily absorbs vinegar, which is a roughly 5% solution of acetic acid in water. When the powdered maltodextrin is dried, the water evaporates and the acetic acid is left behind. If the vinegar is made from apple cider, then whatever other components are present in that vinegar are also retained in the maltodextrin that is then formulated into the pills, capsules or gummies. 

Vinegar can be made from any fruit or vegetable juice that contains glucose, usually released from starch. Grapes, berries, coconuts, barley, oats, dates or apples can all be used to make vinegar, a process that relies on the presence of naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria in the fruits and grains. Yeasts provide enzymes that can first break starch down into glucose and then convert the glucose into ethanol. As Louis Pasteur showed in 1864, Acetobacter aceti bacteria, widely present in the environment, produce enzymes that convert ethanol into acetic acid. Sometimes the yeasts and bacteria in vinegar will coagulate into a slimy mass called “mother of vinegar” that can be used to readily start the production of another batch of vinegar from juice. Fruits and grains of course contain all sorts of substances besides starch. There are minerals, vitamins and a host of polyphenols, some of which also end up in the vinegar. Although only present in small amounts, they are responsible for the distinct taste of different vinegars and are sometimes touted as contributing to the health benefits. 

Those supposed health benefits are mostly attributed to apple cider vinegar. Some marketers limit their claims to it being a “wellness supplement,” while others go whole hog and promote it for weight loss, constipation, lowering blood sugar, reducing cholesterol, fighting inflammation, improving digestion, burning fat, killing bacteria, reducing blood pressure and improving hair health. As a general rule, skepticism should be triggered by an unusually large number of claims made on behalf of some supplement. Different medical conditions have different causes and it is unlikely that the same intervention addresses them all. However, that doesn’t mean that there may not be some basis for some claims. 

Apple cider vinegar in its liquid form has been the subject of a surprisingly large number of studies. A research group in Denmark scoured the scientific literature and came up with 487 papers that had investigated some aspect of apple cider vinegar. Of these 13 were performed on humans and 12 on animals. The animal studies do not have much relevance because the doses of vinegar used were much larger than what people would normally take, but at least they revealed no significant side effects. As far as the human studies go, most used a small number of subjects and were questionably blinded. A significant challenge with vinegar research is finding an appropriate placebo. Anything that has a similarly acidic taste can also have some physiological activity. In any case, a few studies showed somewhat reduced glucose in the blood after a meal that was preceded by taking two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar. A couple of studies investigated weight loss and found that daily consumption of the same amount reduced daily calorie intake by about 200 calories. In general, the evidence for any benefit was found to be of very low quality, and importantly, none of the studies used vinegar powder. 

Vinegar can brighten up the taste of a salad, it can add gusto to French fries and can serve as a useful marinade for meats. But as a medicinal substance, the hype is not backed by evidence, particularly for the tablets, capsules or gummies. Still, powdered apple cider vinegar does have a use. Rub it on a steak before barbecuing. You will enjoy the taste. As far as negating any unhealthy effect that steak may have, it will work about as well as dried stag’s pizzle.


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