In health, as in fashion, trends come and go. From bone broth to coconut oil to detox teas, you can count on health food shelves to be consistently packed with natural remedies promising to help cure just about anything, from troublesome food cravings to diabetes and cancer, from constipation to insomnia and acne.
Enter apple cider vinegar. Recently the sour elixir has risen to the top of the list of supposed multipurpose cure-alls, with many touting it as a sort of Swiss army knife of natural foods, capable of helping with everything from bad breath to weight loss. With bottles of apple cider vinegar retailing at between $2 and $3, it seems too good to be true. But is it?
The short answer is: yes, and no, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.
“In general, I think vinegars are healthy and beneficial, but all on their own I think it’s likely that their benefits are modest at best,” Thomas M. Campbell, M.D., clinical director at the University of Rochester Program for Nutrition in Medicine, told Yahoo Beauty. “The far more important determinant [of health] is the combined consumption of all the food and beverages in a person’s diet.”
Apple cider vinegar is not a cure-all by any means, but adding a little bit of this sour liquid to your diet may have some sweet health benefits, “as long as you’re realistic about the benefits and results that you’re going to get,” says registered dietitian, nutritionist and chef Michelle Dudash.
What benefits, exactly? Let’s dive in.
Controls blood sugar
The most studied of all the effects of apple cider vinegar is its ability to help control blood sugar levels. “Vinegar in general has been shown in both animal and human trials to reduce blood sugar increases after certain types of meals,” says Campbell. “But it’s hardly a clear-cut effect. The effect is different based on the type of carbohydrates in the meal and the form of the meal.”
Apple cider vinegar is naturally fermented and, like all vinegars, contains the active ingredient acetic acid that is largely credited for this effect. “When you consume a high glycemic food, like a white bagel or white bread, this acid that’s in the vinegar can cause people to get a significantly smaller blood sugar response of up to 20 to 40 percent less” than what they would have otherwise experienced, explains Dudash.
But, as Campbell points out, these more processed, low-fiber carbohydrates are foods we probably shouldn’t be eating to begin with, and “high-fiber, healthier carbohydrates may not be improved by adding vinegar. They are already very good.”
At its core, “blood sugar is mostly affected by the total carbohydrates that you eat,” sums up Dudash. “Other things, like whether you had protein or fat with your meal, can affect it, but ultimately it’s carbohydrates that spike your blood sugar.”
Helps with digestion of carbohydrates and starches
Speaking of carbohydrates: The acetic acid found in apple cider vinegar can slow down the digestion of carbohydrates and starches by interfering with the enzymes in your stomach responsible for digesting them. And according to Dudash, those undigested carbs can have a prebiotic effect. (Pre-what? A prebiotic is an indigestible food that promotes the growth of beneficial microorganisms.)
“The starch that’s undigested can become food for the good bacteria that’s in your gut, and those good bacteria, when they get fed what they need, can help to boost your immune system and aid digestion,” Dudash explains.
Jump-starts weight loss
And this is where all those weight-loss rumors surrounding apple cider vinegar come in. “If these starches aren’t getting digested, they are not getting absorbed. Over time, that is a small calorie savings,” Dudash continues. “But it’s certainly not a miracle weight-loss cure. We’re talking perhaps 1 to 2 pounds over 12 weeks. Think of it as another little tool you can put in your weight-loss arsenal to add up to weight loss over time.”
When it comes to kick-starting weight loss, apple cider vinegar is by no means a magic solution. But it can help your metabolism do its job better, according to NAO Nutrition founder Nikki Ostrower. “There are also natural enzymes in apple cider vinegar that aid in the digestion of anything by increasing the hydrochloric acid in our belly, which is the natural acid in our belly that, as we age, our body has trouble making,” she explains. When your body is better able to digest its food and absorb nutrients, it is also better able to rev up your metabolism. But be warned: “It’s not a quick fix; it’s just one part of a healthy lifestyle routine.”
Reduces cholesterol and lowers blood pressure
Sorry, friends. While there are some animal and lab studies that have found tentative evidence that apple cider vinegar might lower cholesterol and hypertension, researchers don’t yet understand exactly how this works or whether it would be equally effective in people. However, Ostrower argues that it has potential, because if the hydrochloric acid in apple cider vinegar stimulates the digestion of bad fats, then it also stimulates the processing of bad cholesterol that can lead to high blood pressure.
Kills bad breath
Thanks to its antibacterial properties, apple cider vinegar can indeed help to kill off the unsavory bacteria that causes bad breath. It can also help to populate our systems with good bacteria that will subsequently prevent bad breath, says Ostrower, in large part because of its impact on digestion. “When our bodies aren’t digesting properly,” she says, “then we have all these issues — the body becomes a toxic breeding ground.”
This one’s a mixed bag. Apple cider vinegar’s effectiveness on heartburn depends on the source of the problem. If you have erosive heartburn caused by lesions in your esophagus or stomach ulcers, then apple cider vinegar could serve to exacerbate the problem. If you have heartburn stemming from something you ate, then apple cider vinegar could help neutralize the issue.
“We’re often mistaken in believing that we have heartburn because our system has too much acid in it, and thus we take an antacid,” says Ostrower. “But when we age, the ability of our body to produce hydrochloric acid starts to decrease, and we need that acid to help digest acidic foods.”
But when you’re dealing with heartburn, don’t just grab a shot glass full of apple cider vinegar. “This is when it’s important to make sure that you’re taking a small amount of apple cider vinegar diluted with water,” says registered dietitian Jessica Cording. How much, exactly? Cording recommends mixing a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar in 8 ounces of water, upping the amount of water slightly if you’ve never tried it before. But “if you’re having any kind of symptom that’s troubling you — suddenly, you’re having heartburn or your sugars are all over the place — that’s the time to see a doctor to talk about your overall health,” she cautions.
The bottom line
Don’t overdo it, and don’t expect a miracle cure. As Campbell says, “In general, any benefit is likely to be somewhat modest, and in the long run the actual foods a person consumes are likely to be much more significant than whether they have vinegar at the same time.”
That said, if you’d like to try apple cider vinegar to achieve any of the benefits outlined above, start slowly by diluting 1 to 2 tablespoons of vinegar in a glass of water and drinking it immediately before eating. For a morning detox, Ostrower recommends drinking it first thing when you wake up, then moving on to a regular healthy, hearty breakfast, like oatmeal or eggs. Because in the long run, no matter what your ultimate goal, it’s all about healthy habits.