Category Archives: Health craze misconceptions

Apple Cider Vinegar and Alkalinity: Truth or Myth?

There are many people in the world that believe that consuming vinegar helps with everything from weight loss to digestion to controlling blood sugar levels.  I have not done enough research (and neither has the rest of the world) to solidly accept or deny these claims.  I leave them up to the user to decide.  I do know that vinegar can be used as a non-alcoholic substitute for creating herbal tinctures, and I’m glad such an option exists.  However, there is one thing that I cannot, in good faith, allow to go unchallenged: the claim that apple cider vinegar acts as an alkaline (base) in the body.

I was at a meal with my mom, her cousins, and my aunts, and as we were leaving my mom told her sister that they needed to get together sometime (as sisters who enjoy a good relationship often want to do). My mom has wanted to become healthier, and my aunt wants to help her become healthier.  So this turned into a brief conversation asking my mom if she’s been taking apple cider vinegar, my mom replying she has not due to a recent tooth surgery, and me asking why.  My aunt’s response: upon hitting the saliva, this strong acid somehow turns into a base and acts to make the body more alkaline.

My response: that makes no sense. Chemically. Medically. Following the laws of nature. Taking out any mysticism and spirituality that some people may imbue to vinegar (which I am not going to address.  I believe in the soul and God, but I’m still on the fence with Chi and energy work and all of that).

For those who haven’t read my other posts (and I’m not entirely sure I’ve explicitly said the following, but I have hinted at it), I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry.  Popular to contrary belief, this actually made me aware of the need to become more rooted in natural and holistic medication, treating the cause and not the symptom and all that, and was actually part of the reason I’ve begun my green and crunchy crusade.  There are several health benefits to eating whole foods instead of processed ones, as well as ecologic and economic benefits.  I believe that we have a responsibility, as the only creatures on earth with the mental capacity to destroy this planet, to protect it instead.  And I believe that creating things instead of buying them is also more rewarding.  That all said, I also believe that it is the responsibility of educated adults to challenge popular opinion with scientific fact.  I don’t blame you for not having a scientific background.  I don’t blame you for believing what others, whom you may trust and love, have said.  I will blame myself, however, if I don’t address this small but important bit of basic chemistry.

The Myth: Consuming Apple Cider Vinegar will make your body more alkaline.

There are several people who believe that the average American diet makes our bodies more acidic, which in turn causes major havoc in our bodies on every level, from cellular to tissue to system to organism.  Many people say the way to correct this effect is to consume more alkaline or alkaline-acting foods.  And one of those foods people claim to act as an alkaline is apple cider vinegar.

I’m not going to address the acidity or alkalinity of our bodies.  I believe that a healthy diet (something I’m still trying to create for myself) will help alleviate many symptoms that we may have and can create health in otherwise healthy people.  I think it takes too much work to say, “Okay, this food is acidic, and this food is basic.  My body can break down this, but not that, so let’s eat this instead.” My goodness! I have a hard enough time counting calories!  However, I will say that I think our bodies are amazing things and unless it is in a terrible state our bodies will do a good job filtering out anything that makes our bodies pH out of whack.  Look up: homeostasis.

The Truth: Apple Cider Vinegar is an Acid

The main component to Apple Cider Vinegar, the thing that gives it that friendly bite, is acetic acid.  It’s created by acetic acid-producing bacteria during the fermentation process.  If acetic acid turned into a base when it hit our saliva, then any acid would turn into a base when it hits our saliva.  Why?  Because it would mean that our saliva binds to (or grabs, in simpler terms) hydrogen ions, leaving the acetate (the name of acetic acid without the hydrogen ion) free to grab another hydrogen ion floating around. Now, to be perfectly clear, there are different chemicals in our saliva that do grab onto hydrogen ions, acting as a buffer against the hydrogen ions released by helpful bacteria when food hits our mouth.  This occurs as the first step of digestion, which is why many nutritionists say, “chew your food” (which also helps with hunger control, but that’s another blog post).  However, these chemicals are having a hard enough time grabbing the bacteria’s ions to worry about the ions released from the acetic acid. Thus, the pH of the acetic acid, in the end, remains exactly the same, and the acetic acid remains an acid as it hits your esophagus, burning it.

Some simple acid-base chemistry:

To help those of you without a science background (or at least a chemistry background. I’m not sure if those in geology fields or astronomy, for instance, would need to study acid-base chemistry), here’s a little bit of an acid-base chemistry lesson.  If it takes you a while to understand it, don’t worry.  It took me four classes to understand acid-base chemistry fully, though I probably would’ve gotten it a lot quicker if I’d studied it better, and I still need refreshers every now and then.

Acids and bases are actually two sides of the same coin. Acids release hydrogen ions into the wild, making the total concentration of hydrogen ions floating around in a solution, usually water-based, go up.  Bases grab hydrogen ions out of solution and hold onto them tight.  Here’s an illustration to help:

acid base chemistry illustration 1

(gotta love my Paint expertise…yeah…)

Notice how there’s a smiley-ion pair in the Acid solution and a lone smiley and a lone ion in the Base solution? There’s a reason for that. Once an acid lets go of its ion, it can act like a base and grab onto an ion. In fact, it’s likely to do so.  Also, once a base grabs an ion it can act like an acid and release an ion.  In fact, it’s also likely to do so.  It happens in a process called equilibrium, which is shown in chemistry language by the following formula below:

acid base chemistry illustration 2.png

What makes an acid an acid, and what makes a base a base?

Scientists like to use a term called pKa, but what it boils down to is how likely a compound is to pick up a hydrogen ion (H+) compared to how likely it is to let go of the H+.  Each acid-base compound will pick up or drop off a hydrogen ion.  However, chemicals are lazy.  They like to be in the lowest state of energy possible.  If it takes a compound a lot of energy to hold on to a H+, it will most likely let it go quickly.  If it takes a lot of energy to let go of a H+, it will hold onto it longer. This changes the concentration of hydrogen ions in the solution, which changes the pH.  The final pH is decided by how high of a concentration of H+ are, on average, floating around in the solution.

So, to simplify, acids are compounds that are too lazy to hold onto the hydrogen ion (H+) and let them float around in the solution.  This increases the concentration of free-floating H+, which leads to a low pH (lots of H+ equals low pH).

Bases are compounds that are too lazy to let go of the hydrogen ion and so there aren’t many H+’s floating around in the solution. This decreases the concentration of free-floating H+, which leads to a high pH (few H+ equals high pH). Bases are what people are talking about when they’re talking about alkaline foods.

So, going back to apple cider vinegar: why can’t it act like a base when you eat it? Vinegar, which contains around 2% acetic acid, has a pH of 2. That means that it is very acidic, and acetic acid is a fairly strong acid, though not as strong as hydrochloric acid, or HCl, which is what’s found in your stomach. To compare, the pH of your mouth is around 6.3, which is close to neutral, and the pH of your stomach is 1.5 to 3.5.

Now, some people use those pesky pKa values to claim that acetic acid will work as a base in your stomach.  The pKa values represent the likelihood that an acid will let go of its hydrogen ion. The pKa of acetic acid is higher, or less acidy, than HCl. That means that it’s less likely to let go of its hydrogen ion than HCl.  That means that the base-form of acetic acid, acetate, is more likely to pick up a hydrogen ion than the base-form of HCl, or Cl- (chlorine ion). That doesn’t mean that it’s likely to pick up a hydrogen ion. Just more likely.  Remember, even strong acids will have some compound-ion pairs floating around, but the compound lets go of the ion really quickly and isn’t likely to pick up another ion for a long time.

Also, for acetic acid to act as a base, that means that the hydrogen ions, our friendly H+, that the vinegar had when you swallowed it had to be grabbed by something else enough that it disrupts the equilibrium of the acetic acid and removed too many H+ to change its pH to a significant degree. People claim that your saliva does that, but remember what I said earlier: the buffers in your saliva are having a hard enough time grabbing the H+ produced by bacteria in your mouth to grab the H+ from the vinegar. Sure, the buffer may grab the H+ in the vinegar instead, but that means that the H+ from the bacteria follows the vinegar you swallowed down into your stomach. Either that, or it hangs out in your mouth, dissolving your teeth.  Or some of both.

In conclusion, does vinegar have no health benefits? I’m not saying that.  There are vitamins and minerals in vinegar that you wouldn’t get from swallowing, say, just acetic acid.  But it in no way acts as an alkalyzing agent in your body. In fact, taking too much can dissolve your teeth and ruin your esophagus, along with causing other problems.  As with any active compound, and vinegar is a very active compound, use at your own risk.