Several types of vinegars in cruets.
Photo: iStock

When most people think of vinegar, it’s as an ingredient in salad dressings and marinades, a condiment that adds flavor to foods. But some also rely on vinegar, especially apple cider vinegar, to deliver health benefits. 

Indeed, over the years it has been a popular home remedy that is drank or applied topically to treat wounds, head lice, acne, poison ivy, diabetes, indigestion, and more. Vinegar certainly can be good for you—provided you know what it can and cannot do.

“Vinegar is absolutely a great tool in cooking,” says Whitney Linsenmeyer, PhD, RD, LD, an assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “However, consumers should be wary of vague health claims about it.” Many of vinegar’s benefits, she feels, are overstated.

What's in Vinegar?

For thousands of years, people around the world have been fermenting foods like grapes, potatoes, grains, and apples to make vinegar. Today, the usual types on supermarket shelves include white vinegar (made by fermenting diluted, distilled alcohol), apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, rice vinegar, and malt vinegar. All are usually made in a two-step process that converts food sugars to alcohol and then into acid. Inexpensive balsamic vinegars contain wine vinegar, some grapes, and caramel coloring. Gourmet types that can sell for $130 or more per bottle are made from grapes fermented and aged in wooden barrels for up to 25 years. 

What the Research Shows

Cooking with vinegar has been shown to have some benefits. Because of its acid content, vinegar can brighten the flavor of many foods, so it can serve as a substitute for salt (vinegar is sodium-free). And vinegar has zero calories except for balsamic, which has about 5 to 27 calories per tablespoon.  

Though studies in lab animals have hinted at potentially greater benefits, there’s little proof of other real perks for people, Linsenmeyer says. Here’s what we know about some of the more common health effects attributed to vinegar.

More on Healthy Eating

Weight loss and detoxing: Vinegar helped volunteers in a small Japanese study shed a tiny amount of weight, but they quickly gained it back. And it really doesn’t “detox” your body, despite the claims that accompany cleanse diets featuring vinegar drinks. “‘Detox’ is a trendy notion these days,” Linsenmeyer says. “But the body is designed to detoxify itself, especially through normal digestion and the functions of the liver and kidneys. We can support our bodies to do this by consuming a healthy diet.”

Heartburn and other digestive problems: “The idea that vinegar would be helpful for acid reflux is somewhat paradoxical,” says David A. Johnson, MD, chief of gastroenterology at Eastern Virginia Medical School and past president of the American College of Gastroenterology. “Vinegar is acidic. It has not been studied in well-controlled trials—there’s no evidence base.” Vinegar is sometimes promoted as containing substances linked to digestive health, such as fiber, pectin, and gut-friendly prebiotics, but it doesn’t have any of them, Linsenmeyer says. Some supplements and drinks made with apple cider vinegar add them, but fruits and vegetables are a much better source.

Lowering blood sugar: Vinegar may improve insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes and slow the digestion of carbohydrates to some extent. In a 2015 Greek study of 11 people with diabetes, those who had an ounce of vinegar and then consumed a ham and cheese sandwich, orange juice, and a cereal bar had slightly lower blood sugar and insulin levels afterward than those who drank water instead of vinegar. But a 2020 review of human and animal studies in the European Journal of Nutrition found that the health benefits of apple cider vinegar, including any effect on blood sugar, couldn’t be determined due to a lack of high-quality research. In a few very small studies, gourmet-quality balsamic vinegars improved the function of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas in rats and slowed atherosclerosis-promoting damage to LDL cholesterol in a tiny Japanese study with five people. But there’s no research suggesting inexpensive balsamic vinegar has the same effects.

Is there any harm in trying vinegar, though? Vinegar is fine to use on food and when mixed with water, juice, or another liquid is safe to drink. However, with a pH between 2.4 and 3.3, vinegar is acidic enough to erode tooth enamel, inflame the esophagus and stomach, and trigger nausea and acid reflux. That’s why you should steer clear of the shots of full-strength vinegar advocated on the internet (or vinegar capsules), and not drink vinegar straight, Linsenmeyer says.  

Smart Ways to Enjoy Vinegar

The best way to consume vinegar is to make it part of an overall healthy diet. Try these ideas:

Make your own sweet-tart sipper. “There is no reason to spend $3 to $4 on a trendy drink when vinegar itself is so inexpensive,” Linsenmeyer says. “You can make one at home for 10 cents.” Steep 8 ounces of just-boiled water with a slice of raw ginger, a squeeze of fresh lemon, and honey, then add just 1 teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. “I do this at home because I like the flavor, not because it is going to dramatically influence my health in any way,” she says.

Drizzle vinegar on veggies, fish, chicken, or your favorite meat. Balsamic lends a hearty flavor, but Linsenmeyer also recommends champagne vinegar, rice wine vinegar, and white balsamic vinegar for a big flavor punch.

Mix up your own flavored vinegars. They’re delicious in salad dressings or to top foods. Try these recipes from Linsenmeyer.

Garlic-basil vinegar: Combine 4 cups red wine vinegar, 1 cup fresh basil leaves, and 4 crushed garlic cloves in a glass or other nonreactive container. Let steep for two to three weeks in the refrigerator, shaking occasionally. Strain and store in sterile pint jars for three to four months in the refrigerator. 

Lemon-thyme vinegar: Combine 5 strips lemon peel, 12 springs fresh thyme, and 4 cups white wine vinegar in a glass or other nonreactive container. Let steep for one to two weeks in the refrigerator, shaking occasionally. Strain and store in sterile pint jars for three to four months in the refrigerator.