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What’s So Special About Apple Cider Vinegar?

It’s not just apple cider vinegar that’s good for you! Image from, shared under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Articles extolling the benefits of apple cider vinegar (ACV), such as this one, abound both online and in print. Moreover, it is my impression that many herbalists prefer ACV when using vinegar as a solvent for herbal preparations. But what’s so special about it? Why do so many articles single it out among vinegars?

I asked a group of experienced herbalists for their thoughts. I got a range of responses:

  • It is cheap and easily available.
  • It can easily be made at home.
  • It is traditional.
  • It is nutritious.
  • It contains the “mother” (this is the mother culture: a mix of micro-organisms that produce the fermentation).

The article I linked to above attributes the benefits of ACV to the presence of acetic acid as well as the mother:

“…adding bacteria … ferments the alcohol, turning it into acetic acid — the main active compound in vinegar.

Acetic acid gives vinegar its strong sour smell and flavor. Researchers believe this acid is responsible for apple cider vinegar’s health benefits. Cider vinegars are 5–6% acetic acid.

Organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar also contains a substance called mother, which consists of strands of proteins, enzymes, and friendly bacteria that give the product a murky appearance.

Some people believe that the mother is responsible for most of its health benefits…”

But none of these explanations really stacks up, as none truly distinguishes ACV from vinegars made from other sources:

  • ACV may be cheaper and more readily available than other vinegars in certain parts of the world, especially in temperate climates, but it is not in others. (It is probably significant that most of the members of the group I asked live in North America.)
  • Any vinegar may be easily made at home, given the raw material.
  • Whether ACV is traditional or not depends on where you live!
  • All vinegars contain small amounts of nutrients, especially minerals, and ACV does contain quite a lot more calcium than some other vinegars. However, considering the quantities of vinegar that one might consume daily, their nutrient contribution to any normal diet would be tiny. Perhaps one could say that if one is on a poor diet, every little helps. But I suspect that most people nowadays who take ACV for their health are probably not people on a poor diet.
  • Acetic acid is a constituent of all vinegars, not just ACV.
  • Whether or not a vinegar contains the mother does not depend on what it is made from, it depends on whether or not it has been pastuerised. Pastuerisation kills the mother. Thus while home-made vinegar will still contain live culture, industrially produced vinegar will likely not. And while I am assured that shop-bought ACV in America usually contains it, that is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world; I am pretty sure it is not the case where I live.

In my opinion, the one factor that may make one vinegar more beneficial to health than another is indeed whether or not it contains live culture, and nothing to do with what it is made of.

This culture contains bacteria which are probiotic, that is, they favour a healthy population of gut bacteria. The importance of our gut flora for many aspects of our health is now well-established scientifically.

I imagine the following kind of process has occurred. In times past, people in certain temperate regions of North America noticed how taking a daily dose of ACV was beneficial to their health. The word spread and gradually it became a traditional practice in those regions. Down to the modern age when most of the writing on popular health issues in the Western world comes out of North America. In an increasingly health-conscious world, ACV then became a cultural meme. To the point when even health editors are displacing the key point – from its rightful place in “live culture” to its misplaced one in “apple cider”. Thus even people in countries where shop-bought apple cider vinegar is pastuerised (and therefore devoid of the mother culture) are misguidedly persuaded to purchase it for its supposed superior health benefits. This process, although less extreme and a little less bizarre, has echoes of the pacific island cargo cults!

So, in an age when it is enlightening to be informed by science, why not write articles about live vinegars in general, rather than apple cider vinegar in particular?

Copyright (c) Robert Hale 2022.

Here are some proper articles about vinegar:

Budak NH, Aykin E, Seydim AC, Greene AK, Guzel-Seydim ZB. Functional properties of vinegar. J Food Sci. 2014;79(5):R757-R764. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.12434

Kandylis P, Bekatorou A, Dimitrellou D, Plioni I, Giannopoulou K. Health Promoting Properties of Cereal Vinegars. Foods. 2021;10(2):344. Published 2021 Feb 5. doi:10.3390/foods10020344

Ousaaid D, Mechchate H, Laaroussi H, et al. Fruits Vinegar: Quality Characteristics, Phytochemistry, and Functionality. Molecules. 2021;27(1):222. Published 2021 Dec 30. doi:10.3390/molecules27010222

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