Paging Dr. Frischer: Apple cider vinegar

There is likely a bottle of apple cider vinegar in your pantry right now. It’s a tasty ingredient for salad dressings, marinades, and homemade pickles.
Does it also bestow health benefits? Apple cider vinegar has a long history in health care. Hippocrates (who, even though he lived 2,500 years ago, is known as the father of modern medicine) wrote of it as a treatment for various types of infections. It has been credited with curing ailments ranging from warts to the flu. My personal experience with apple cider vinegar dates back to my grandmother. If we were sick, she mixed it with water and honey, and boiled it on the stove. We inhaled it through our nose, and I can certainly report that it cleared up my sinuses. Thank you, Grandma.
For thousands of years, vinegar has been used for weight loss. A 2005 study of only 12 people found that those who ate a piece of bread along with small amounts of white vinegar felt fuller and more satisfied than those who ate just the bread. In a Japanese study, 175 obese but healthy people of varying age and body mass index (BMI) consumed either vinegar or water daily for 12 weeks. Their diets were similar, and they kept food journals. Those who had vinegar lost slightly more weight…and gained it back after the study was over. The theory was that vinegar curbs appetite, or extends the feeling of being full.
Another touted use for small amounts of apple cider vinegar in the diet is to help lower blood sugar. The belief is that vinegar blocks some of the digestion of starch, and therefore prevents it from raising the blood sugar. Several small studies have found that vinegar may indeed help to lower glucose levels, including a 2007 study with a mere 11 participants who suffered from type 2 diabetes. Regular intake of about two tablespoons resulted in a 4-6% decrease in blood sugar.
Apple cider vinegar also has been credited with antimicrobial qualities, and is traditionally used as a cleansing agent, with its high acidity inhibiting the growth of certain types of bacteria. I could not find studies to support this.
A 2006 study showed evidence that vinegar could lower cholesterol…in rats. There have been no studies to date using people.
Another study using rats found that vinegar could lower elevated blood pressure, and a large observational study found that people who regularly consumed oil and vinegar dressing on salads had lower rates of heart disease. However, it’s not clear that the vinegar was the reason.
A few laboratory studies have investigated whether vinegar can kill cancer cells or slow their growth. However, observational studies have been confusing. One found that consuming vinegar was associated with a decreased risk of esophageal cancer, while another associated it with an increased risk of bladder cancer.
When diluted with water, it has been used as a skin toner. Bathing in diluted apple cider vinegar, or using a cloth soaked in diluted vinegar, is said to reduce the effects of sunburn. A reported treatment for warts is to soak the wart in diluted vinegar. Note: always be careful to avoid getting vinegar near the eyes.
Apple cider vinegar does have its downsides. The most obvious disadvantage is its taste – it’s not appealing to drink or to add to food in large quantities. It is highly acidic. While in moderate amounts the acetic acid in apple cider vinegar may act as a useful antiseptic, too much can actually cause damage. Undiluted, it can wear away tooth enamel, or burn gums and tissues in the esophagus. Those who are particularly sensitive might even experience burns on the skin. Over-consumption of apple cider vinegar could lead to a reduction in potassium, a critical electrolyte that affects hydration and the nervous system. Long-term use of apple cider vinegar can lead to loss of bone density.
My bottom line? I can personally vouch for my grandmother’s claim that it clears the sinuses. However, the many, many other claims simply have not undergone enough serious scientific evaluation to convince me to recommend it. However, keeping in mind the caveats listed above, the downside risks are minimal – feel free to use it as you see fit!