What apple cider vinegar can and can't do, according to a dietitian

There’s a lot of hype around this so-called wellness elixir, but what kind of health benefits does it really offer?
Close-Up Of Apple Cider Vinegar In Bottle Against White Background
Natalia Klenova / Getty Images

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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

Drinking apple cider vinegar (ACV) as a wellness elixir is becoming increasingly popular, and the health trend has recently gained even more momentum, thanks to celebs who swear by it — like Jennifer Aniston and Katy Perry (who’s also an investor in a leading ACV brand). Influencers and producers of the product rave about purported health benefits of apple cider vinegar like increased weight loss, better blood sugar control and a stronger immune system. Sales of ACV have also spiked in the months since the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the nation. But is ACV really a cure-all that can jump-start health and wellness in the ways that devotees claim?

Here’s what apple cider vinegar can and can’t do, according to the scientific evidence.

Apple cider vinegar won’t prevent you from getting COVID-19 or another virus

There is a small amount of preliminary research that suggests ACV might enhance the work of certain immune-system cells, including bacteria-engulfing cells, but it’s a big leap to say that ACV — or any other single food or supplement — can prevent you from getting sick. Your immune system is very sophisticated and it relies on a number of healthful substances — primarily from plant-based foods — to keep it operating well. In addition to eating a balanced diet, another well-documented, immune-enhancing habit is to sleep for the recommended seven to nine hours each night.

Apple cider vinegar may prevent blood sugar spikes

Though there are better ways to control blood sugar — for example, by modifying your carb intake, eating meals at consistent times and staying active — this ACV claim has some supporting evidence to back it up. One small study suggested that vinegar may improve insulin sensitivity, which means that your body may be more sensitive to the way insulin is transporting glucose from the bloodstream into your cells where it can be used for energy. Another small study suggested that drinking a two-tablespoon shot of ACV at bedtime resulted in better fasting blood sugar levels the following morning.

However, in both cases, the evidence is based on very small studies, and it’s unclear whether there is any long-term benefit from using ACV to control blood sugar levels. Plus, people with diabetes who are taking insulin or other medications to control blood sugar should be careful with ACV since, in theory, there may be an additive effect that would necessitate adjusting your meds.

Apple cider vinegar may improve your cholesterol levels

While it’s far from proven, results from a small study suggested that taking ACV every day for 12 weeks along with going on a reduced-calorie diet lowered triglyceride and total cholesterol levels and led to improvements in healthy HDL-cholesterol levels. Though these results are promising, there are other, more extensively studied habits that can lead to better cholesterol levels. For example, the American Heart Association stresses the importance of a healthy diet that’s rich in veggies, fruits, pulses, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fish, seafood and low-fat dairy products. They also suggest getting about 30 minutes of physical movement on most days. If you smoke, quitting is another proven way to help improve cholesterol levels.

Apple cider vinegar might promote better gut health

ACV is produced by fermenting apples, and like other fermented foods, ACV contains gut-friendly probiotic bacteria. While, in theory, there's a benefit to boosting your probiotic intake with ACV, this particular food source hasn’t been studied, so there’s no proof that you’ll get this benefit from using it. Vinegars derived from fruit are also said to contain antioxidants — in particular, a type of plant-based antioxidant known as polyphenols. These polyphenols get broken down in the body and then they become food for beneficial bacteria, allowing the good bacteria to thrive in your gut. However, one study found that while antioxidants are indeed present in ACV, the fermentation process reduces your body’s ability to absorb them. More research is needed in this area before concrete conclusions can be drawn.

In the meantime, you can amp up the polyphenol content of your diet by eating plant-based foods, like fruits, veggies, whole grains and pulses, along with spices, cocoa powder, tea and coffee, which are rich sources of these substances.

Apple cider vinegar can erode your tooth enamel

Any highly acidic food or drink, including oranges, grapefruits, soda, wine, fruit juice and ACV, can damage your protective tooth enamel. The more frequently you consume these foods and drinks, the higher the risk. Consuming them before bedtime is especially damaging because the mouth produces less saliva at night, which means the acids are likely to get less diluted. You can minimize the risk to your teeth by swishing your mouth with water after consuming drinks with apple cider vinegar in them (or consuming any another highly acidic substance) and waiting at least 30 minutes before you brush your teeth.

Apple cider vinegar won’t help you lose much weight

ACV might help a little, but don’t expect miracles. In one study, 39 participants drank about a tablespoon of ACV twice a day and went on a reduced-calorie diet, which resulted in an 8.8-pound weight loss compared to a 5-pound weight loss among the calorie-restricted eaters who didn’t drink the ACV. That may seem like a significant difference, but it’s important to apply some common sense here. Supplements, including ACV and apple cider vinegar pills, haven’t been shown to produce meaningful weight loss over a long period of time. This study was over a 12-week period — and both groups reduced their calorie levels from their baseline diets. It’s unclear whether there would be any benefit for those who simply add ACV to their daily menu or whether this advantage holds up past the 12-week mark.

It is clear, however, that eating more whole foods and reducing your processed food consumption is helpful for managing your weight. There are also other science-backed habits you can rely on. For example, getting enough sleep, paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness sensations and developing tools to help navigate life’s curveballs without turning to food to cope can all help. Developing these skills is a better long-term bet than doing shots of ACV.

Apple cider vinegar can help you enjoy other healthful foods

Though it may have some promising health properties on its own, much of the evidence for ACV comes from small, short-term studies of homogenous populations or from animal research that’s far from definitive. However, there is one solid benefit: ACV enhances the taste of other health-promoting foods, like veggies and pulses, which are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Using it to dress up these types of foods is a top way to enjoy the potential health benefits of ACV, as well as the more established benefits of eating a plant-focused, mostly whole-food — or minimally processed foods — diet.