Up Close & Edible: Apple Cider Vinegar

Word on the yoga mats is that a few daily tablespoons of apple cider vinegar could be the miracle potion for melting away fat, buoying the immune system, restoring arthritic joints and even curing gout—among a host of other ailments. Much of the hype comes from old folk tales and suave marketers. Dieticians and scientists have a different story: vinegar's most magical, confirmed benefit may just be as a tasty, low-cal condiment.

Myths about apple cider vinegar date back to the 17th century. In 1820, poet Lord Byron—who reputedly suffered from anorexia nervosa and bulimia—made popular the vinegar and water diet, a regimen the American Dietetic Association (ADA) today includes on its list of fad diets. In the late 1950s, D.C. Jarvis's popular book "Folk Medicine" praised apple cider vinegar as the solution for a range of ailments—from chronic fatigue, to arthritis, to fat pulverizing. And Patricia Bragg of Bragg Live Foods Inc., a California-based company that is one of the leading producers of the concoction, extols its benefits in her book, "Apple Cider Vinegar: Miracle Health System" (Bragg Health Sciences, 2002).

In truth, scientific research to support the health-boosting qualities of apple cider vinegar remains scant. "Most vinegars are void of anything," says Marisa Moore, registered dietician and a spokeswoman for the ADA. "Research is always developing, but right now nothing has been proven."

One early study does provide tentative evidence that there may be some advantages for diabetics who take vinegar. Carol Johnston, a nutrition professor at Arizona State University, found that vinegar could be helpful in monitoring blood-glucose levels. In her research with diabetic patients, those who drank a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar before mealtimes had lower blood glucose than those who did not. Her initial trials also observed that some vinegar drinkers consumed fewer calories, slimmed their waist and hip circumferences, and trimmed their body fat.

But Johnston—who is analyzing data from her first long-term study—says more research is needed to prove effective weight loss. "Future trials need to combine vinegar with weight-loss attempts," she says. "Weight naturally fluctuates. You have to follow people for a long time."

Don't put down that bottle just yet. Vinegar can act as a tasty substitute for saltier, fattier foods. Most vinaigrettes, for instance, are two-thirds oil and one-third vinegar, says Johnston. But merely reversing the ratio offers a light alternative to the traditional dressing. "Research does support that eating a low-calorie salad and a broth-based soup lowers your caloric intake," says Moore. "You fill up on fibers and vegetables."

Of course, using vinegar for its potential health benefits won't hurt you—as long as you drink it in moderation and steer clear of apple cider tablets. The Food and Drug Administration warned several online companies to curb overzealous advertising claims about the capsules. Nutrition professor Jerald Foote and his team of researchers at the University of Arkansas found that many of the tablets do not contain apple cider vinegar at all. So if you're looking for something with proven fitness benefits, you might want to forego the fad supplements and head back to the yoga mat.