Used by cultures worldwide ranging from Ancient Egyptians all the way up to today, vinegar is one of the most enduring culinary items in human history. Chemically, vinegar is a highly acidic substance that arises naturally from the fermentation of alcohol. In a more practical sense, vinegar’s most common use is to impart flavor into the food we eat. Condiment-style food items from salad dressings to pickling juice all contain it.
Aside from its flavorful versatility, recent medical studies have made at least a few indications that vinegar has some impressive health benefits for specific groups of people. Why they might exist isn’t yet very clear – some suspect that certain phytochemicals, or molecules that are found in certain plants, are the root cause. But either way, the following health benefits of vinegar are gaining ideological ground among those who adhere to natural medicine, as well as some in the medical community.
Perhaps the most immediately impressive application of vinegar as a health supplement is for those with Type 2 Diabetes. Often developing over a several decade span of a person’s lifetime, this type of Diabetes is characterized by improper response to insulin in the body. Those who suffer from it are often overweight, and are at high risk for nerve damage and immune system compromise. To avoid these complications, Diabetes sufferers must keep close track of their blood sugar levels. Vinegar, as a 2007 medical study involving 11 subjects seemed to demonstrate, may help Diabetes patients in that effort.
In the study, patients were directed to consume two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar diluted with water right before bed. When they woke up, their blood sugar levels were, on average, between four and six percent lower than control subjects who did not consume the vinegar. Though the study was small enough to be considered only preliminary, it did seem to show that vinegar may be an effective tool in managing blood sugar levels for Diabetes patients. Other earlier studies also support this hypothesis. In a 2004 medical study conducted by the American Diabetes Association, it was found that those who consumed apple cider vinegar before a meal heavy in carbohydrates had lower blood sugar levels than those who didn’t.
Though this particular aspect of vinegar health benefits is far from proven, certain tests have demonstrated a potential link between vinegar and cancer cell control. Particularly, vinegar consumption may be correlated to lower risk of esophageal cancer.
Unfortunately, these studies have been much less conclusive than those involving Diabetes. They have been mostly observational in nature, and have produced some less desirable results as well – including a possible correlation between vinegar consumption and pancreatic cancer. Whether positive or negative, any association vinegar has with cancer rates is far from conclusive.
From a historical standpoint, vinegar has been widely used by many cultures as a weight loss aid. Though colloquial information like this is far from reliable, scientific evidence seems to support it. In a study performed in 2005, it was found that those who consumed vinegar before meals felt fuller after fewer calories than those who didn’t. Many observational studies as well have linked vinegar with healthier overall weight
This evidence, much like that of other purported health benefits of vinegar, is not exactly conclusive. But it cannot be argued that increased use of vinegar for flavoring is associated with better weight control. A half cup of vinegar has just 25 calories. Real mayonnaise, on the other hand, has about 800 calories in a half cup. This may not seem all that important, until you consider the fact that most popular salad dressings are either vinegar or mayonnaise based. So, while mayonnaise salad dressings can turn an otherwise healthy meal option into a fat and calorie dense mess, vinegar retains the caloric density of foods that it’s used with.
Naturally, other health benefits result from replacing high fat and sodium flavorings with vinegar. Instead of sprinkling loads of salt on vegetables, which can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure, one can use vinegar as a flavorful alternative without the negative side effects. So though vinegar’s direct effect on cholesterol, weight, and heart health aren’t exactly known, it is certainly a healthier alternative to flavorings high in fat and sodium.
One potentially significant health benefit of vinegar has to do with bone health. Those at risk for bone loss and Osteoporosis, especially middle-aged and older women, may stand to gain some very real health effects from vinegar consumption. As mentioned in the article’s introduction, vinegar is highly acidic. Its primary component is a substance called acetic acid, which has a very low pH – much like the body’s own naturally occurring digestive juices. According to some in the medical community, vinegar can thus assist the digestive system in breaking down certain other substances by incorporating a little more acidity into the digestive mix. Listed among these substances is calcium. While calcium supplements are widely available to those at risk of Osteoporosis, it’s the amount of the mineral absorbed that makes the difference between a healthy and unhealthy bone structure. By consuming vinegar before calcium, one may be able to increase the ratio of absorbed and used calcium to calcium taken in.
Vinegar’s calcium absorption assistance is especially useful for people who are lactose intolerant. Their aversion to dairy limits the number of calcium containing foods available to them. But by eating calcium dense leafy greens with a little vinegar, one can work towards offsetting that deficiency.
All evidence considered, it’s hard to conclude that vinegar is the magical cure-all that some purport it to be. It is, however, safe to say that incorporating vinegar into a given person’s diet can have some very beneficial health effects. Whether it’s being used to control blood sugar, lose a few pounds, or increase calcium absorption, vinegar has been demonstrated as an effective tool for a widely varied number of health goals.