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What’s the Story About Vinegar and Probiotics?

Vinegar is commonly infused with spices or her...

Vinegar is commonly infused with spices or herbs—as here, with oregano (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was asked about whether vinegar is a good thing to consume because of its effects on probiotic bacteria.  The suggestion was based on the idea that the acidity of vinegar might kill off beneficial bacteria.  The questioner heard that lemon juice might be better.

Acidity is measured by a scale called the pH scale which goes from zero to 14.  Neutral is 7.0, acid is lower than 7 and alkaline is a number larger than 7.0.  Your blood must stay within a very narrow range on the most barely alkaline side of neutral and if it threatens to go outside the range, your body automatically adjusts your breathing or urinary output to bring it back.

First off, the pH of vinegar and lemon juice are about the same and  less acidic than a healthy stomach during digestion, which is between 1.5 and 2.5.  (Wikipedia gives a wider range, but averages are not the same as optimal.)  The pH of distilled vinegar is 2.4. When the pH gets low enough it triggers the esophageal sphincter to close, preventing acid reflux and after the food has been disinfected and broken down, it triggers the lower sphincter to open.  So if you have reflux it is because your stomach acidity is too low (numbers too high) to close the sphincter and consuming vinegar or bitters before meals may help.

The bacteria in the gut evolved to survive in an acid environment.  (Note the name in Lactobacillus acidophilious “Acid-loving”)  When the acidity is insufficient, the bacteria won’t be happy, but it doesn’t need to be as low a pH as in the stomach which has special mucosa to protect it and needs to disinfect and break down food.  Bile from the liver at a pH of 7.0-7.7 raises the pH of the food bolus after it leaves the stomach.  The pH of the gut is probably around 4, which is what is needed by healthy gut bacteria.  Fat breaks down in the gut along with the residual products that survived the stomach.

It would not be correct to say that because a high concentration of acetic acid is poisonous, that vinegar should be avoided.  The dose makes the poison and virtually everything we need to take in – oxygen, water, essential minerals like iron and magnesium, essential fatty acids- is poisonous in a large enough range.  Although pure acetic acid is classified as a weak acid, concentrated acetic acid is corrosive, and could attack the skin.  Vinegar on the other hand protects the acid mantle of the skin which is needed by our protective skin bacteria. Why take it? The acetic acid in vinegar which is about the same acidity as our gastric juices,  produces acetyls in the body which are fundamental to all forms of life. When bound to coenzyme A, acetic acid is central to the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. This is why a spoonful of vinegar at meals is often suggested for dieters.

Note that while most table vinegars sold are 5% acetic acid (with a range of 4-8%), the base material may affect the pH of the vinegar itself.  Balsamic vinegar has two different origins:  true balsamic vinegar is made from a concentrated grape must, aged for years  in a variety of  different wooden casks.  The commercial balsamic sold in supermarkets is typically made with concentrated grape juice mixed with a strong vinegar, which is laced with caramel and sugar.

If you want to make a good balsamic vinegar without all the additives, take a jar and fill it with white pine, balsam fir or other conifer needles that aren’t too resinous.  Fill with apple cider vinegar and let soak, with needles covered, for 4 weeks.  It isn’t dark, but it is tasty.  My experiments with commercial wine vinegars have not been successful, but you would probably do well with a home made wine vinegar which tends to be stronger.

Distilled vinegar as shown below has no nutrient value, and I reserve it for cleaning because of its disinfectant value.

Nutritional Content  of Vinegars (per cup)

 
Balsamic Apple Cider Red Wine Distilled
Protein 1.2 0 0.1 0
Calories 224 50 45.4 0
Carbohydrates 43.4 2.2 0.6 0
Fiber* 0 0 0 0
Sugar 31.8 1 0 0.1
pH (most acidic reported)  2.4 3.1 3.2 2.4
Calcium 68.9 16.7 14.3 0
Magnesium 30.6 12 9.6 0
Iron 1.8 0.5 1.1 0
Sodium 58.7 12 19.1 0
Potassium 266 174 93.2 0
Zinc 0.2 0.1 0.1 0
Phosphorous 48.6 19.1 19.1 0
Manganese 0.3 0.6 0.1 0
Copper 0.1 0.2 0 0
Vitamin C 0 0 1.2 0
Vitamin A 0 0 0 0
Other Vitamins 0 0 0 0
Water (g) 195 224 226 226
Compiled from: Nutritiondata.self.com
http://www.versatilevinegar.org/researchnews.html

 

Now vinegar itself may be probiotic, much like kombucha, which is basically a vinegar grown on a sugar sweetened tea base.  The mother of vinegar, also called Mycoderma aceti or scoby, is a biomass of mostly  Acetylobacter bacteria  which has been valued over history for producing vinegar, along with beneficial yeast.  If you leave apple or grape juice or  wine exposed to the air and protected from fruit flies, you may get wild acetylbacter and yeast, or more reliably you can inoculate it yourself to produce vinegar.  Bragg’s vinegar for instance is not completely filtered and you can see small amounts of the mother.  If you add it to a an acid juice and leave it in a warm place you will eventually see a round gelatinous mass floating near the surface or stringy pieces in earlier stages.  This is the mother of vinegar.

Mother of vinegar, from apple vinegar

Mother of vinegar, from apple vinegar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

You can also purchase mothers of vinegar from Northampton Beer and Wine, Amazon, a local brew and wine shop or use a kombucha scoby.  (A mother of vinegar can also be used for kombucha- the bacterial masses are made up of a variety of organisms and they will each adapt differently to the base used.)  Kombucha mothers, for instance have a predominance of Gluconacetobacter which makes gluconic acid from the glucose in the sugar -the Acetobacter will flourish instead when grown in apple juice where fructose predominates.  Purists who grow kombucha (at least commercially where they can check it) may also have the probiotic yeast Sacchermyoces kombuchaensis.  However kombucha which is fermented too long becomes an acid vinegar.  All scobys and mothers of vinegar vary, especially since vinegar can be grown on wine, grape juice, apple cider, malted barley, rice, or a variety of other bases, provided they are sufficiently acid.  Don’t worry about it too much unless you don’t like the flavor.  If you are making your own and want to add herbs, do wait until you filter out your mother because I have killed mine by adding herbs during fermentation. (Makes sense- most culinary herbs help preserve foods from bacteria!)

I had an unexpected growth of a mother when I tried Paul Bergner’s recipe for colloidal magnesium: one part Philips Milk of Magnesium to five parts apple cider vinegar.  I left one capped, about 2/3 full on my top shelf.  When I returned eight months later there was a four inch thick mother.

Live vinegar then is quite good for your your probiotic organisms and  I recommend it for your health.  It helps break down food if you take it with meals, lowers blood sugar spikes, metabolize fat, makes magnesium available for cramps and can be a great live food.

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