In 218 B.C. the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the Alps with his elephants to settle a score with Rome. The perilous journey almost came to an end when his army approached what looked like an impenetrable rock fall. But Hannibal, an ingenious leader, had a trick up his sleeve. Or at least, some vinegar in his pot. As the Roman historian Livy recounts, the general had his men heat up the vinegar and pour it over the rocks, causing them to crumble. And here the story crumbles. Scale deposits in a kettle may certainly crumble when immersed in hot vinegar, but that is a long way from breaking down a wall of rock, even if it is made of limestone. Like scale in a kettle, limestone is made of calcium carbonate, which will react with the acetic acid in vinegar to form soluble calcium acetate and carbon dioxide. But there’s no way that pouring vinegar on boulders will do anything but cause a bit of bubbling on the surface as carbon dioxide is released. So Livy’s story has to be swallowed with a very large grain of sodium chloride, especially given that his account was written some two hundred years after the supposed event.
This is not the only apocryphal story about vinegar. Here’s a classic. During one of Europe’s many plagues, four thieves in France had made a career out of robbing the dead. They were finally caught, surprisingly never having contracted the disease. In exchange for leniency, the thieves agreed to reveal their secret formula for avoiding the plague. It seems they had been drinking a concoction made by macerating garlic along with some other herbs in vinegar made from wine or cider. Even doctors bought into the tale. Whereas today the stethoscope is the symbol of the physician, back in the 17th century it was a gold-headed cane with a hollow head filled with the vinegar that supposedly had kept the plunderers of the dead safe from the plague. Accounts of physicians sniffing the vinegar as they attended to the sick gave birth to the legend of the therapeutic properties of “Four Thieves Vinegar.”
Now fast forward to modern times. Four Thieves Vinegar, or “Vinaigre des Quatre Voleurs,” is still with us. Its French producer claims to use a recipe identical to the “historical” version brewed in the .sixteenth century. Well, that is as historical as Hannibal’s rock-dissolving vinegar. In any case, the claim is that the concoction stimulates the immune system and offers better protection against the flu than a vaccine! But there’s more. You can even apply it as a compress for treatment of arthritic pain and headache. Or use it as a rinse after shampooing to reduce frizziness. That actually does work. Of course so does any old vinegar.
You don’t have to travel to France to look for claims of all the marvelous things that vinegar, particularly the apple cider variety, can do. There are plenty of books, pamphlets and ads promoting apple cider vinegar on this side of the big pond too. It’s a “nutritional power house” that fights cancer, curbs arthritis, reduces blood pressure, dissolves fat, cleans out “bad” cholesterol, reduces fatigue, treats ulcers and even improves memory. Sometimes, though, regulatory authorities get fed up with the unsubstantiated blather.
“Jogging in a Jug,” a dietary supplement with apple cider vinegar as a key ingredient, was created by former Alabama dairy farmer Jack McWilliams in the early 1990s with claims of providing the same health benefits as jogging, including alleviating heart disease and arthritis while “cleansing the internal organs.” The Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission determined these claims were unsubstantiated, and in 1995 penalized McWilliams’ company, Third Option Laboratories, to the tune of $480,000. Furthermore, any future advertising had to state that “there is no scientific evidence that Jogging in a Jug provides any health benefits.”
The company is still around today, run by McWilliams’ grandson. No direct health claims are made, but the company’s website features testimonials alleging effective treatment of allergies, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, acne and overweight. Abiding by the FDA ruling, there is the disclaimer that Jogging in a Jug has conducted no scientific research and that comments from customers have not been verified scientifically. It is clear, however, that people are not buying Jogging in a Jug to sprinkle on their French fries. Danny McWilliams Jr. certainly thinks highly of his company’s product: “We believe this is the best dietary supplement ever made. One could say it is nature’s own dietary supplement.” Yes, one could say that. But that doesn’t make it true.
There are numerous other promoters of various apple cider vinegar products as well. Often they will infer that they are being prevented from making health claims because of the influence that pharmaceutical companies have with regulatory agencies. Why would anyone want to buy expensive medications when apple cider vinegar will do the trick, they ask? Maybe because the medications work and the vinegar does not.
So, is there any actual evidence that apple cider vinegar can provide any sort of health benefit? Perhaps surprisingly, there is. But the effect is far from earth shaking. Dr. Carol Johnston at Arizona State University has shown that a couple of teaspoons a day may help improve blood sugar control in type 2 diabetics. It seems acetic acid inhibits some of the enzymes that digest sugar and starches, meaning that these are more likely to pass through the digestive tract without being absorbed and therefore have less of an impact on blood sugar.
What about the much ballyhooed claim that apple cider vinegar will “melt the fat away?” Dr. Tomoo Kondo and his group at the Central Research Institute in Japan have looked into this. In a properly controlled double-blind study of 155 obese patients they found that about four teaspoons of vinegar a day over three months resulted in a weight loss of about a kilogram, and a reduction in waist size of about 1.5 centimeters. Maintaining these losses, however, required continuous ingestion of vinegar. A possible explanation is that acetic acid interferes with some of the enzymes involved in lipogenesis, the conversion of sugars to fat. Interesting, but not of great clinical relevance. At least, though, vinegar doesn’t cause any harm. Unless you spill it on your marble countertop. Still, I think I’ll continue to do my jogging on a treadmill and reserve the jug for other forms of nourishment.