Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.
We call it vinegar; the French call it vin aigre — sour wine. Wine that has "turned" doesn't mean that it's necessarily bad even though you're not likely to serve it to your guests. Vinegar has been around about as long as wine has and, like wine, it can be made from everything from berries and fruits to potatoes and beets.
Although it's not as romantic as wine, vinegar has lots of the same healthful nutrients, including the polyphenols that protect blood vessels and decrease the formation of blood clots. The conversion of the alcohol in wine to acetic acid by a specific bacterium gives it the tartness and "bite" that are part of our everyday cuisine.
In spite of the remarkable sophistication of the pharmaceutical industry there is still some interest in the medicinal properties of vinegar and in its ability to kill germs. Hippocrates described the healing properties of vinegar 2500 years ago. He used it to treat wounds and skin ulcerations, a practice that physicians continued until early in the 20th century.
Military surgeons from ancient Rome to Europe in World War One doused battlefield injuries with vinegar in hopes of preventing infection. It's only slightly effective in killing germs but it does damage tissue. Modern medical texts still mention the use of 2 percent acetic acid for the treatment of external ear infections (swimmer's ear) but better and safer treatment is available.
Germs like Salmonella and E. coli turn up in our food supply with disconcerting frequency. Could vinegar help to eliminate these infectious agents? I wouldn't depend on it. Laboratory studies do show that some germs are susceptible to vinegar but it usually means soaking the food for about 30 minutes. Most of us wouldn't want our meat to be marinated in vinegar for a half-hour or more, especially when proper food handling and adequate cooking will eliminate most of the risk.
Vinegar has an antiglycemic effect. A vinegar salad dressing can lower the rise in blood sugar after a test meal by 20 or 30 percent in healthy subjects as well as in those with type 2 diabetes. The studies in humans have been very limited so far but they suggest that habitual use of vinegar in food could benefit persons at risk of diabetes. Vinegar also contributes to satiety, the feeling of fullness after a meal. That might help to control weight gain.
An ounce or so of vinegar in salad dressing is never harmful and it could contribute to a healthier lifestyle. Some entrepreneurs have taken it a step further and are marketing vinegar tablets. These may or may not have health benefits but they vary greatly in their ingredients and some don't even contain vinegar! Swallowing undiluted vinegar can cause injury to the esophagus and some tablets have done the same.
Good quality wine vinegar adds zest to soup or salad. It might even improve your general health provided that you eat a salad every day with a dressing made with vinegar and olive oil. If you replace butter and margarine with a dip of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for your dinnertime bread or rolls it will help even more.
Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.