What’s So Special About Apple Cider Vinegar?

It’s not just apple cider vinegar that’s good for you! Image from world.openfoodfacts.org, shared under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

Articles extolling the benefits of apple cider vinegar (ACV), such as this one, abound both online and in print. Moreover, it is my impression that many herbalists prefer ACV when using vinegar as a solvent for herbal preparations. But what’s so special about it? Why do so many articles single it out among vinegars?

I asked a group of experienced herbalists for their thoughts. I got a range of responses:

  • It is cheap and easily available.
  • It can easily be made at home.
  • It is traditional.
  • It is nutritious.
  • It contains the “mother” (this is the mother culture: a mix of micro-organisms that produce the fermentation).

The article I linked to above attributes the benefits of ACV to the presence of acetic acid as well as the mother:

“…adding bacteria … ferments the alcohol, turning it into acetic acid — the main active compound in vinegar.

Acetic acid gives vinegar its strong sour smell and flavor. Researchers believe this acid is responsible for apple cider vinegar’s health benefits. Cider vinegars are 5–6% acetic acid.

Organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar also contains a substance called mother, which consists of strands of proteins, enzymes, and friendly bacteria that give the product a murky appearance.

Some people believe that the mother is responsible for most of its health benefits…”

But none of these explanations really stacks up, as none truly distinguishes ACV from vinegars made from other sources:

  • ACV may be cheaper and more readily available than other vinegars in certain parts of the world, especially in temperate climates, but it is not in others. (It is probably significant that most of the members of the group I asked live in North America.)
  • Any vinegar may be easily made at home, given the raw material.
  • Whether ACV is traditional or not depends on where you live!
  • All vinegars contain small amounts of nutrients, especially minerals, and ACV does contain quite a lot more calcium than some other vinegars. However, considering the quantities of vinegar that one might consume daily, their nutrient contribution to any normal diet would be tiny. Perhaps one could say that if one is on a poor diet, every little helps. But I suspect that most people nowadays who take ACV for their health are probably not people on a poor diet.
  • Acetic acid is a constituent of all vinegars, not just ACV.
  • Whether or not a vinegar contains the mother does not depend on what it is made from, it depends on whether or not it has been pastuerised. Pastuerisation kills the mother. Thus while home-made vinegar will still contain live culture, industrially produced vinegar will likely not. And while I am assured that shop-bought ACV in America usually contains it, that is not necessarily the case in other parts of the world; I am pretty sure it is not the case where I live.

In my opinion, the one factor that may make one vinegar more beneficial to health than another is indeed whether or not it contains live culture, and nothing to do with what it is made of.

This culture contains bacteria which are probiotic, that is, they favour a healthy population of gut bacteria. The importance of our gut flora for many aspects of our health is now well-established scientifically.

I imagine the following kind of process has occurred. In times past, people in certain temperate regions of North America noticed how taking a daily dose of ACV was beneficial to their health. The word spread and gradually it became a traditional practice in those regions. Down to the modern age when most of the writing on popular health issues in the Western world comes out of North America. In an increasingly health-conscious world, ACV then became a cultural meme. To the point when even health editors are displacing the key point – from its rightful place in “live culture” to its misplaced one in “apple cider”. Thus even people in countries where shop-bought apple cider vinegar is pastuerised (and therefore devoid of the mother culture) are misguidedly persuaded to purchase it for its supposed superior health benefits. This process, although less extreme and a little less bizarre, has echoes of the pacific island cargo cults!

So, in an age when it is enlightening to be informed by science, why not write articles about live vinegars in general, rather than apple cider vinegar in particular?

Copyright (c) Robert Hale 2022.

Here are some proper articles about vinegar:

Budak NH, Aykin E, Seydim AC, Greene AK, Guzel-Seydim ZB. Functional properties of vinegar. J Food Sci. 2014;79(5):R757-R764. doi:10.1111/1750-3841.12434

Kandylis P, Bekatorou A, Dimitrellou D, Plioni I, Giannopoulou K. Health Promoting Properties of Cereal Vinegars. Foods. 2021;10(2):344. Published 2021 Feb 5. doi:10.3390/foods10020344

Ousaaid D, Mechchate H, Laaroussi H, et al. Fruits Vinegar: Quality Characteristics, Phytochemistry, and Functionality. Molecules. 2021;27(1):222. Published 2021 Dec 30. doi:10.3390/molecules27010222

Plants of the Mint family in Iranian Folk Medicine

Melissa officinalis L., a member of the mint family (Labiatae). Photo by Gideon Pisanty (Gidip) גדעון פיזנטי, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Abstract of “Labiatae Family in folk Medicine in Iran: from Ethnobotany to Pharmacology” [1]:

“Labiatae family is well represented in Iran by 46 genera and 410 species and subspecies. Many members of this family are used in traditional and folk medicine. Also they are used as culinary and ornamental plants. There are no distinct references on the ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology of the family in Iran and most of the publications and documents related to the uses of these species are both in Persian and not comprehensive. In this article we reviewed all the available publication on this family. Also documentation from unpublished resources and ethnobotanical surveys has been included. Based on our literature search, out of the total number of the Labiatae family in Iran, 18% of the species are used for medicinal purposes. Leaves are the most used plant parts. Medicinal applications are classified into 13 main categories. A number of pharmacological and experimental studies have been reviewed, which confirm some of the traditional applications and also show the headline for future works on this family.”

This paper also details in tabular form the folk uses of over 70 members of the mint family (Labiatae) in Iran with notes on the pharmacological activity of many of them from scientific studies.

This paper is an open access article. The PDF is available for download.

[1] Naghibi, F., Mosaddegh, M., Mohammadi Motamed, M., Ghorbani, A. (2010). Labiatae Family in folk Medicine in Iran: from Ethnobotany to Pharmacology. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, Volume 4(Number 2), 63-79. doi.org/10.22037/ijpr.2010.619

Traditional Use of Medicinal Plants on Milos Island, Greece

One of the Cyclades islands. Public domain photo from Pxfuel.com.

Milos is an island in the Cyclades group of islands in Greece. Perouli and Bareka (2022) have carried out an ethnobotanical survey of the the traditional uses of medicinal plants there. They write:

Milos is a volcanic island in Greece, isolated from the mainland since its birth 480.000 years ago. The present study provides information on plant species used for medicinal purposes by indigenous people during 16th to 21st centuries. The aim of the study was to collect, preserve and analyse data on pharmaceutical plants used by Milos’ inhabitants, to find new plants used in traditional medicine or new uses of the already known ones and to reveal and explain changes of medicinal plants that were used through 16th to 21st centuries. The research was based on interviews of inhabitants, concerning medicinal plant species used in 20th and 21st centuries, on local, folk literature on pharmaceutical plant species used during 16th and 19th centuries, including an unpublished manuscript. Data on 76 native and cultivated plant taxa belonging to 40 families were collected, 68 of them are used mostly for medicinal or other purposes. The interviews’ data were statistically analysed. Three taxa were not matched with any other study regarding medical indication the inhabitants of Milos use them for. A clear restriction on the use of native plants was observed*, and evidence about the influence of refugees on the change of medicinal plants use is pointed out.

[* The authors mean that the use of medicinal plants is more restricted in modern times than in the past.]

The main interest of this study for me are the appendices, in which detailed information is given about the local uses of many species of plants typical to Mediterranean island environments.

Citation: Perouli M., Bareka P. Ethnobotanical survey on medicinal and other useful plants from Milos Ιsland (Kiklades Ιslands, Greece). Mediterranean Botany 43, e75357, 2022.

The full article is available here (open access): https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/MBOT/article/view/75357/4564456560095.

Traditional Use, Chemistry and Properties of Nigella Damascena

Nigella damascena (Love in the mist), L., 1753, in a garden, Charente, France. By JLPC via Wikimedia Commons.

The genus Nigella (Ranunculaceae) is distributed throughout the Mediterranean basin. Badalamenti et al. (2022)[1] have published a systematic review on the medicinal and traditional use, chemical composition, toxicology and phytotherapy of Nigella damascena L., also known as “love-in-a-mist” and “devil in a bush”. This beautiful plant is It is native to southern Europe, north Africa and southwest Asia, where it is found on neglected, damp patches of land.

From the abstract (with some slight changes in wording):

Nigella damanscena L. is traditionally used as an ingredient in food, for example, as flavouring agents in bread and cheese, but is also known in folk medicine, used to regulate menstruation; for catarrhal affections and amenorrhea; as a diuretic and sternutatory; as an analgesic, anti-oedematous, and antipyretic; as a disinfectant and vermifuge. This paper reviews the most dated to the latest scientific research on this species, highlighting the single isolated metabolites and exploring their biological activity.

Fifty-seven natural compounds have been isolated and characterised from the seeds, roots, and aerial parts of the plant. Among these constituents, alkaloids, flavonoids, diterpenes, triterpenes, and aromatic compounds are the main constituents. The isolated compounds and the various extracts obtained with solvents of different polarities presented a diverse spectrum of biological activities such as antibacterial, antifungal, antitumour, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, anti-oedema, and antiviral activities. Various in vitro and in vivo tests have demonstrated the pharmacological potential of β-elemene and the alkaloid damascenin. Unfortunately, the largest number of biological studies on this species and its metabolites have been conducted in vitro. Further investigation is necessary to evaluate the toxicological aspects, mechanisms of action and real therapeutic potential of extracts of N. damascena.

[1] Badalamenti N., Modica A., Bazan G., Marino P., Bruno M.
The ethnobotany, phytochemistry, and biological properties of Nigella damascena – A review. Phytochemistry, Volume 198, 2022,
113165. ISSN 0031-9422. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.phytochem.2022.113165.

Medicinal Plant Use in Bouira Province, Northern Algeria

Al Asnam, Bouira, northern Algeria. Attribution: Bouizriphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Medour et al. (2002)[1] carried out an ethnobotanical survey of medicinal plant use in two rural municipalities in the province of Bouira, Northern Algeria. This is a biodiverse, mountainous, Berber-speaking region with a rich ethnobotanical knowledge system.

Bouira is a province of Northern Algeria. Image taken from the cited paper [1].

Data were compiled from 69 informants among the local population and on 136 plant species. Data were gathered and data analyses were provided on:

  • Socio-demographic profile of the informants.
  • Diversity of medicinal plants.
  • Toxic plants.
  • Plant parts used, mode of preparation and administration.
  • Diseases groups, treated diseases and number of use reports.
  • Relative frequency of citation of the plant species recorded.
  • Frequency of use of the plant species recorded.
  • The percentage of informants claiming the use of a certain plant species for the same major purpose.
  • Consensus among informants for plant use for the different disease categories recorded.

Among the many interesting data provided in this quantitative survey, the most interesting for me were those on the most used medicinal plants for various types of symptoms or conditions. These are summarised in the table below, taken from the cited paper [1].

Medicinal plants used for various types of symptoms or conditions. Table taken from the cited paper [1].

Of particular interest to me personally are the reported uses of several plants commonly found in my own bio-region of Ibiza, Balearic islands, Spain, namely:

Allium sativum: Hypertension.
Cynara cardunculus
: Diabetes.
Ditricchia viscosa
: Arthritis.
Juniperus oxycedrus
: Furuncles.
Lavandula stoechas
: Colon pain.
Mentha spicata
: Flu.
Olea europaea
: Arthritis.
Papaver rhoeas
: Colon pain.
Pinus halapensis
: Flu.
Urtica dioica
: Hair loss.

[1] Meddour, R., Sahar, O., Abdoune, N., & Dermouche, M. (2022). Quantitative ethnobotanical investigation of medicinal plants used by local population in the rural municipalities of Haizer and El Asnam, province of Bouira, Northern Algeria. Mediterranean Botany, 43, e71190. https://doi.org/10.5209/mbot.71190