Is vinegar a miracle elixir or just an old folk remedy? Do a quick search on the Internet, and it appears that the stuff can cure everything from arthritis to high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and digestive issues. While most health claims are not supported by scientific data, there is strong evidence for vinegar’s ability to help with weight loss and blood sugar control. And there’s no question that vinegar should be a mainstay in every health-conscious kitchen. It’s my go-to salt alternative for giving food a burst of flavor without any weight-boosting calories or blood pressure–raising sodium. 

Several types of vinegar are now on the market, including old favorites like white vinegar, red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar and balsamic vinegar, to name a few. A new crop of trendy specialty vinegars infused with fruit purées or herbs, such as rosemary or sage, are also gaining popularity, along with a plethora of drinkable vinegar-spiked “health tonics.” The top questions I get about vinegar and my answers…

• What exactly is vinegar? Use of vinegar by the ancient Egyptians dates as far back as 3,000 BC where traces have been found in urns that preserved food. Vinegar is a strong acid, made in a two-part fermentation process in which foods (such as grains, apples and potatoes) produce alcohol. Bacteria are then added to break down the alcohol into acetic acid. Most vinegars we use in the kitchen and as a household cleaner contain 95% water and 5% acetic acid.  

• Does vinegar have any nutritional value? Most vinegars contain negligible amounts of everything—fat, carbs, protein, vitamins and minerals—with some versions having just a smidgen of calories (about two to 14 per tablespoon). What many vinegars do contain is a nice dose of health-promoting polyphenols that act as antioxidants (balsamic and red wine have the highest amounts). 

• What health benefits does vinegar really have?A dieter’s dream, this near-zero-calorie condiment is guaranteed not to pack on the pounds. Research suggests that vinegar can slow the rate of digestion and possibly suppress hunger hormones—making you feel full longer. But remember that not all are calorie-free. Some vinegars are a blend of fruit juice and vinegar, sometimes with added sugar, so check the nutrition facts on the label. Vinegar also may help people with diabetes. Research has shown that one tablespoon of vinegar can reduce blood sugar by 30% after eating 50 g (about two slices) of white bread.

• What are your favorite ways to use vinegar?Drinking your vinegar is not the best way to consume this healthy liquid. It is a powerful acid that can erode your tooth enamel and wreak havoc on the gastrointestinal tract by irritating your throat and esophagus and causing stomach upset. Because more is not better, don’t exceed two tablespoons a day added to food or mixed with a few ounces of water—excessive amounts have been linked to low blood levels of potassium. I use vinegar as a marinade to tenderize meats (red wine vinegar) and fish (white wine vinegar)…to pickle food…or simply to brighten the taste of food. For a fast, super-healthy and spectacularly delish vinaigrette, simply use extra-virgin olive oil and a high-quality balsamic vinegar in the magic ratio of 3:1—that’s it! Look for a balsamic that’s aged for at least 12 years, ideally from Italy’s Modena or Reggio Emilia region.