The first feeling after I took a 20 ml shot of pure apple cider vinegar was an all-consuming burning sensation at the back of the throat. My eyes watered as the acid travelled down every inch of the esophagus. Swearing profusely, I gulped water while questioning my creative choices and better judgement.
For me, the vinegar shot was simply part of ill-conceived ‘research’ for this story (mind you, the editor didn’t ask me to do this). But some natural health proponents swear by taking a shot of ACV every day to aid with a laundry list of ailments. It’s claimed to promote weight loss, cure indigestion and reflux, detox your liver, “balance your body’s pH” and nuke unwanted yeasts and bacteria.
To be fair, most who dispense this advice do tell you to only drink ACV heavily diluted with water, and suggest it can even be mixed with honey to alleviate the fierce tang. Supposedly its various benefits can also be reaped if it’s applied as a delicious salad dressing.
You can also buy specialised ‘health tonics’ with organic apple cider vinegar as a base, enhancing its qualities with the addition of other foodstuffs like ginger, garlic, turmeric, various herbs and berries. Such concoctions can set you back around $12 for just 100 ml, while you can get a bottle of ACV at the local grocery store for as little as 80 cents per 100 ml.
Whenever one food item is claimed to perform so many health miracles, it pays to proceed with caution. ACV peddlers will tell you that the benefits of ingesting vinegar on the daily are “well documented” and known from ancient times. But what sets cider vinegar apart from others, and what does the science actually say?
ACV has been put on pedestal
“There's nothing special about apple cider vinegar,” says nutritionist and researcher Tim Crowe. “It's been passed down for decades as a health product, but there's no rationale I can see for why apple cider vinegar should be better or worse for us than any other vinegar.”
But it’s possible that all vinegars - whether made out of wine or apples or what have you – could confer a health benefit in one particular area, and that’s blood sugar control. The component that makes vinegar vinegary is a concentration of acetic acid. In 1988, researchers in Japan found that for a small group of healthy volunteers, vinegar containing 5 per cent acetic acid reduced a spike in blood sugar after a dose of sucrose on an empty stomach.
Since then, many small-scale studies have been done looking into the effect of vinegar on blood sugar levels, especially in people with diabetes. The current verdict is that if you have type 2 diabetes, daily intake of diluted vinegar – any vinegar, not necessarily ACV – may help with blood sugar control, but you absolutely must talk to your doctor if you would like to try this approach.
According to Crowe, blood sugar control is the only health claim for ACV that’s supported by reasonably good evidence. There’s been some research into vinegar as a weight loss aid, but the benefits, if any, seem extremely modest. Vinegar can reduce your appetite, but experts say that’s probably because it slightly upsets your stomach.
“All the claims that follow from here are not supported by any evidence or any strong reason why apple cider vinegar should even give these benefits,” explains Crowe. “It reads like a long list of snake oil claims that have been with us for hundreds of years for all sorts of health tonics.
“Anyone taking these products is purely doing it on faith, because the evidence doesn't show that it will do what it says.”
What about ‘gut shots’?
If vinegar health tonics aren’t your thing, there’s another emerging trend - ‘gut shots’ made out of various fermented products, such as sauerkraut and kimchi juice. If vinegar is an antimicrobial that can kill germs upon contact (but only if you pour it on them, not if you drink it), fermented drinks are said to do the opposite, and enhance the ‘good bacteria’ in your gut.
“The area of fermented foods is certainly growing, and there’s some good science behind this,” says Crowe. But so far, it’s impossible to tell whether chugging sauerkraut juice can actually help your gut in a specific way, because the microbiome – the ever-changing society of microorganisms in our bodies – is a highly complex system and scientists are still uncovering new details on how it works.
If you like the taste, a fermented health drink is probably just fine, but from a science-based point of view, the effects are unpredictable: it would be tricky to ensure that every batch of fermented liquid has the same kinds of bacteria at the same concentration, and there’s no telling exactly what those bugs will get up to once they’re in the gut.
In the end, it’s a matter of preference to engage in drinking things that may or may not do what they say. But whatever you do, don’t take shots of undiluted ACV – it can erode tooth enamel, scald your esophagus, and if you accidentally inhale it, even damage your lungs. Thankfully, all I got after my ACV shot was mild indigestion for several days. I’ll stick to just putting it on salads.
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