They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but what about apple cider vinegar (ACV)? It seems like every time I turn around, I’m reading something new about its miraculous healing benefits, and grocery stores now stock it in both the condiment and the vitamin aisles. Is ACV a modern-day snake oil, or is there something to all the hype?
A Long History of Healing
Though ACV has become big news only recently, its healing properties are nothing novel. In Apple Cider Vinegar: History and Folklore, Victoria Rose writes that people all over the world have used the liquid to treat various ailments for at least ten thousand years. The Babylonians used it as a condiment and a preservative. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and his fellow Greeks and Romans relied on its healing properties. ACV has also been found in Egyptian urns dating back to 3,000 BC.
More recently, medieval Parisians used ACV as a deodorant and healing tonic, believing it capable of preserving youth. Japanese samurai also drank it for vitality. Christopher Columbus carried the liquid in barrels aboard his ships because it helped to prevent scurvy—though vitamin C wasn’t actually discovered until much later, in 1933—and American Civil War doctors used it to clean wounds and sterilize instruments.
Americans started using ACV in the 1950s, after author D.C. Jarvis promoted it in his best-selling book, Folk Medicine: A Vermont Doctor’s Guide to Good Health, as a kitchen remedy for head lice and poor digestion, among other afflictions. Then its popularity took off as part of the alternative-medicine movement of recent years.
The ABCs of ACV
ACV is the product of a fermentation process in which bacteria and yeast break down the sugars in pulverized apples and turn them into alcohol, which then becomes acetic acid, or vinegar (from the French for “sour wine”). During fermentation, a thick layer—called the “mother of vinegar”—forms on the bottom of the liquid. Proponents of ACV consider this “mother,” which they say contains living enzymes and beneficial bacteria, especially valuable and opt for raw and unpasteurized (rather than distilled) vinegar to cultivate it.
Vinegar’s main property is its acidity, but different vinegars have other acids, vitamins, mineral salts, and amino acids. According to several natural-health sources, ACV contains vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, vitamin B1, vitamin B2, vitamin B6, beta-carotene, bioflavonoids, acetic acid, propionic acid, lactic acid, enzymes, amino acids, potash, and apple pectin. It also contains the minerals and trace elements potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, sodium, copper, and iron.
Good for You Inside ...
Nowadays, ACV is most popular as a purported weight-loss aid. A tablespoon a day taken before meals, some claim, will help to curb appetite and increase metabolism. According to Mayo Clinic nutritionist Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD, there’s no evidence to support such beliefs, but a 2005 study found that consuming small amounts of vinegar with meals helped people increase feelings of satiety. It doesn’t have to be ACV, though; plain old white vinegar will do.
Researchers have also tested claims about ACV’s benefits for diabetes, cholesterol, blood pressure, heart health, and cancer. A 2007 study published in Diabetes Care showed that eleven people taking two tablespoons of ACV before bed lowered their morning glucose levels by 4 to 6 percent. Two laboratory studies of rats in 2006 suggested that ACV may also lower cholesterol and blood pressure. And research at the University of Texas indicates that all vinegar may be able to kill or inhibit the growth of cancer cells, especially esophageal cancer.
Less researched is the alkaline-acid theory. Some in the alternative-health sphere believe that most ailments—especially inflammatory diseases like diabetes, arthritis, and allergies—are caused by bodily pH levels that are too low. The way to correct that imbalance, according to the theory, is to replace grains, meat, and dairy products (all acidic foods) with a plant-based diet and to consume ACV daily. It seems counterintuitive—combat acidity with an acid? But believers in the alkaline-acid theory argue that ACV, alone among the vinegars, has an alkalizing effect on the body, making it an effective cure for everything from the common cold to clinical depression.
... and Out
You don’t have to drink ACV to reap its benefits. It’s also a natural moisturizer and toner with many uses for face, hair, and body.
- Combine one-half tablespoon of ACV with one cup of cold water for a natural dandruff remedy that will also add body and shine to your hair, as long as you don’t mind the smell. (It will fade … eventually.)
- If you’re prone to acne or age spots, use some ACV on your face as a nightly toner. It will clear up the oil and work as a natural antibacterial, as well as lighten discoloration.
- Whiten teeth on the cheap by brushing them with ACV. The acid will help break up stains. But don’t do this too often, or you’ll wear away the tooth enamel (and the stains will get worse).
Claims that ACV also cures lice and warts are untrue, but it does do plenty. You can come up with a longer list if you think creatively.
Beware of Snake Oil Salesmen
As with all supplements, you should ask your doctor before beginning to take ACV. It’s not for everyone. Pure vinegar is very acidic and can damage tooth enamel and the tissues in your mouth and esophagus if it’s not diluted. It can even cause contact burns on the skin. Long-term use of ACV can lower potassium levels, contributing to osteoporosis, and may interact with certain medications. ACV contains chromium, too, which affects insulin levels, so people with diabetes need to be especially careful when taking it.
Despite its acidity, opt for (diluted) liquid vinegar. You can purchase ACV tablets, but since the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements, there’s no way to know for sure what you’re getting. A 2005 study of eight different brands revealed wide discrepancies among their ingredients, and some didn’t contain any ACV at all.
No Miracle Cure
Though sorting through conflicting information about ACV can be confusing, adding a tablespoon or two to your salad dressing will probably do you more good than harm. Only now are researchers starting to confirm the liquid’s age-old reputation as a restorer and maintainer of health, but while we should all retain some degree of skepticism about its supposed cure-all properties, centuries of history assure us that ACV is no fad.