Debunking the health benefits of apple cider vinegar

Apple Cider Vinegar

The Internet would have you believe apple cider vinegar is the new pixie dust due to its health benefits. It’s tempting to believe the Internet claims about apple cider vinegar (ACV). They sound so fantastic — even doctors can fall victim to them.

ACV is not pixie dust, but it’s also not snake oil. For those who want to try ACV, it does have some proven health benefits. Here are a few of those health benefits — and limitations — straight, no chaser.

Where does ACV come from?

Vinegar comes from the French phrase vin aigre, meaning sour wine. The sourness comes from the acetic acid. Making apple cider vinegar entails taking advantage of controlled-spoilage.

Yeast digests the sugars in apples and converts them into alcohol. A bacteria, acetobacter, then turns the alcohol into acetic acid. I don’t want to get too technical, but you can call this process fermentation. The "mother" refers to the combination of yeast and bacteria formed during fermentation. If you look at an apple cider vinegar bottle, you can see strands of the "mother" floating around.

Many people attribute apple cider vinegar’s effects to the "mother." There’s some truth to this since the mother counts as a probiotic. But, the importance of the mother has not been established with research. Aside from probiotics, ACV has a vitamin profile similar to apple juice. Hence, the sour drink is ripe with B-vitamins and polyphenols (plant-based antioxidants).

All in all, the probiotics, acetic acid, and the nutrients in ACV are responsible for its health benefits.

ACV may have a modest effect on weight loss, but don’t get rid of your gym membership.1. Apple cider vinegar can help with blood sugar control.

It’s no secret that diabetes is common in the United States. Is ACV a reasonable weapon in the fight against diabetes?

It is, according to some studies. One example is a small study published in the Journal of the American Association of Diabetes in 2004. The study entailed giving participants a meal composed of a bagel, OJ, and butter. After the meal, the participants received 20 grams of apple cider vinegar or a placebo. The researchers checked blood glucose levels 30 and 60 minutes after the meal.

They found that ACV significantly lowered post-meal blood glucose levels. Several other studies report similar findings.

Bottom line: ACV won’t cure diabetes, but it may moderately lower blood glucose levels. It won’t take the place of any medications for diabetes, but it’s a safe enough addition to a diabetes treatment plan (as long as you don’t have kidney disease).

2. Apple cider vinegar may keep the bacteria on your salad from getting out of control.

In 2005, a study assessed vinegar’s anti-microbial properties by inoculating arugula with Salmonella. The researchers treated the tainted arugula with either vinegar, lemon juice, or a combination of them both. The researchers sought to see if these interventions could reduce bacterial growth.

They found that both lemon juice and vinegar decreased the growth of Salmonella. In fact, the ACV/lemon juice mixture decreased Salmonella to undetectable levels (I wouldn’t bank on this at home, though).

Bottom line: Nowadays, it seems like there’s a recall for lettuces at least once per week. Throwing some ACV on your salad may serve a purpose beyond adding flavor. Even if you use ACV, you still have to use common sense. If you dip raw chicken in your spinach, the vinegar won’t stop the bout of diarrhea that’s coming.

3. Apple cider vinegar may help boost weight loss.

Everyone wants to lose weight. Supplements that facilitate weight loss are in high demand. And as it turns out, a randomized, clinical trial recently published in the Journal of Functional Food showed that ACV might help with weight loss.

The participants drank 15ml of ACV with lunch and dinner (a total of 2 tablespoons). They also ate a diet that was 250 calories less than their daily estimated requirements. The researchers found that ACV significantly reduced weight. In fact, the people in the ACV group lost an average of 8.8 lbs over 12 weeks. On the other hand, the participants who did not receive ACV only lost 5 lbs over the 12 week study period. The researchers also found that ACV decreased cholesterol levels.

Bottom line: ACV may have a modest effect on weight loss, but don’t get rid of your gym membership. Keep in mind that the people in this study were on a calorie restricted diet and they exercised. The researchers argued that ACV affects weight by lowering one’s appetite.

4. Apple cider vinegar will not control your high blood pressure.

One popular myth is that ACV can be used for controlling blood pressure. In my research, I found one small study in rats that showed a decrease in systolic blood pressure in rats fed a diet containing acetic acid compared to those without it. There weren’t any studies using ACV for high blood pressure in people.

Bottom line: High blood pressure is nothing to play with. I’ve seen people have strokes in real-time from high blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, there’s simply not enough data to support using ACV as a blood pressure medication. Eat a healthy diet, exercise, and take your meds if you need them.

5. Apple cider vinegar will not cure cancer.

A few studies show that vinegar may have anti-cancer properties. Most of these studies involved culturing cancer cells and exposing them to vinegar or acetic acid. The limitation of these studies is obvious; we can’t directly pour ACV on cancers inside of people. Further, you definitely can’t give someone an ACV IV infusion without causing serious harm or death.

Yet, a large population study from China found lower rates of esophageal cancer in people who frequently consumed vinegar. It’s worth noting that the people in the study were likely consuming rice vinegar, not ACV.

Bottom line: ACV is not going to cure esophageal cancer, unfortunately. As a GI doctor, I’m typically the first person to tell someone they have esophageal cancer. I wish I could tell people all they have to do is drink some vinegar. Sadly, things aren’t that easy.

If you are concerned about the risk of esophageal cancer, then don’t smoke and don’t drink a lot of alcohol. Talk to your doctor if you have chronic heartburn because you may need screening for Barrett’s esophagus.

The takeaway

Overall, ACV is safe. Everything has a possible downside, even ACV. Before you start guzzling apple cider vinegar, here are a few negative possibilities.

  • The acid in apple cider vinegar may erode your teeth enamel. You may want to guzzle some water after drinking it.
  • Anecdotally, acidic foods or liquids like vinegar may exacerbate acid reflux.
  • If you have chronic kidney disease, your kidneys may not be able to process the excess acid that comes along with drinking apple cider vinegar.

Like any supplement, ACV won't replace a healthy lifestyle. It may have some benefits to our bodies, but overall, we need more studies to truly understand the health benefits and side effects associated with ACV.

author details Edwin McDonald

Edwin McDonald IV, MD

Edwin K. McDonald IV, MD, is dedicated to improving the health of individuals and communities through nutrition education.

Learn more about Dr. McDonald