Anecdotes about the health benefits of vinegar proliferate wildly, as do claims by skeptics that it is nothing more than placebo medicine. So, what does the scientific evidence actually say?
According to a review published in MedGenMed titled, “Vinegar: Medicinal Uses & Antiglycemic Effect,” which set out to examine the scientific evidence for the medicinal uses of vinegar, folklore concerning vinegar’s discovery stretch back to the very beginnings of recorded history:
Legend states that a courtier in Babylonia (c. 5000 BC) “discovered” wine, formed from unattended grape juice, leading to the eventual discovery of vinegar and its use as a food preservative.
This fascinating review describes the history of vinegar to be “as colorful as it is practical,” stating that, “Hippocrates (c. 420 BC) used vinegar medicinally to manage wounds and Cleopatra (c. 50 BC) dissolved precious pearls in vinegar and offered her love potion to Anthony. Sung Tse, the 10th century creator of forensic medicine, advocated hand washing with sulfur and vinegar to avoid infection during autopsies.” Interestingly, vinegar “teas” were used by US medical practitioners of the late 18th century for ailments ranging from dropsy to poison ivy, croup, and stomachache, as this was before the production and marketing of hypoglycemic patented medicines.
What Is Vinegar?
The word vinegar comes from the French vin aigre, meaning “sour wine,” and is a byproduct of fermenting a source of carbohydrates, grapes, dates, apples, berries, etc. The chemistry behind the process is described as follows:
Initially, yeasts ferment the natural food sugars to alcohol. Next, acetic acid bacteria (Acetobacter) convert the alcohol to acetic acid. Commercial vinegar is produced by either fast or slow fermentation processes. For the quick methods, the liquid is oxygenated by agitation and the bacteria culture is submerged permitting rapid fermentation. The slow methods are generally used for the production of the traditional wine vinegars, and the culture of acetic acid bacteria grows on the surface of the liquid and fermentation proceeds slowly over the course of weeks or months. The longer fermentation period allows for the accumulation of a nontoxic slime composed of yeast and acetic acid bacteria, known as the mother of vinegar.
It is the acetic acid which is responsible for the tart, biting, pungent flavors of vinegar, but the FDA states that acetic acid is not vinegar and should not be added to food products customarily containing vinegar products. Vinegar actually contains a wide range of food components,  including:
In this sense, vinegar is a complex food, irreducible to a singular compound it contains. This also may explain why it has such a broad range of potential medicinal properties. What follows is a list of health benefits associated with vinegar, as disclosed in the aforementioned review.
The Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Vinegar
Vinegar, without doubt, has far more health benefits than listed here. We should remind ourselves regularly that a lack of scientific proof does not constitute evidence that something does not exist, or is not real. Direct experience, of course, is at the foundation of all scientific inquiry and clinical intuition. Owing to the status of vinegar as a food, and its extraordinarily high margin of safety, we can only hope that folks will not be dissuaded from using it as a tonic, or ‘natural remedy’ if that is what they freely choose.
 US Food and Drug Administration. Acetic Acid – Use in Foods. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/ora/compliance_ref/cpg/cpgfod/cpg562-100.html. Accessed March 9, 2006.
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