Apples: Food, Poison, Medicine

Many of our culinary traditions this time of year make use of the abundance of freshly harvested apples, a plethoric source of sugary sustenance. The abundance of this single food source is so overwhelming, in fact that historically, people had to ferment apples in order to preserve them. If we let the microbes eat the apple juice—which is what fermentation is—the apple is transformed from food, into poison, and, if fermented even longer, into medicine.

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It starts with a fresh apple. We may all know the apple’s sweet-tart crunch, which goes well with cheese or nut butter. The fresh apple offers us a quick boost in energy thanks to its high sugar content, while its soluble and insoluble fiber, both support healthy digestion. But we can’t eat them all fresh (too many!) so some of them get pressed into fresh juice, which we call cider. 

Apple cider is tasty and sweet. So sweet, in fact that it can challenge the human metabolism, asking a lot of our bodies to manage the rush of sugar entering the bloodstream without the fiber from the apple to slow it down. People with diabetes or insulin resistance—where abnormally high levels of insulin is needed to create the same blood sugar-lowering effect—are not well-equipped to handle sweet juices like apple cider. In fact, sweet juices (and sodas and energy drinks) can predispose some people to these diseases.

So fresh apple cider: nice in moderation, tough on the metabolism in high doses.

A next step in processing apples is fermentation, which when performed carefully, under specific circumstances, using specific yeast strains yields hard apple cider, an alcoholic version of the fruit juice. Delightfully cheery at low doses, hard cider can present all the challenges that any alcoholic beverage can at higher doses: dehydration, headaches, impaired decision making, impaired liver function, alcoholism and many more.

So hard apple cider: nice in moderation, tough on a lot of body systems in high doses.

Interestingly, given the opportunity for wild fermentation (using airborne strains of yeast) both hard apple cider and fresh apple cider will become apple cider vinegar, which may actually prevent or slow the development of diabetes and has been shown to help to control blood sugar levels after meals.[1] 

The medicinal form of apple cider vinegar is as a watered-down shot—a small amount of the vinegar diluted with a small amount of water, taken before meals. Just like hard cider and fresh apple cider, apple cider vinegar can be problematic at high doses, but unlike the beverages, apple cider vinegar is sour and hard to drink in large doses, providing a natural failsafe for overdose. 

So apple cider vinegar: a medicine at low doses, unfit to drink at high doses.

In addition to its medicinal uses, apple cider vinegar is an all around amazing household substance, used in food preservation, countless recipes and household cleaning. You can make your own apple cider vinegar by setting aside leftover hard cider or apple juice in a jar covered with a cloth and affixed with a rubber band around the rim. Let set for 4-8 weeks until the cider is very sour, then use it however you like!

While many people may benefit by taking apple cider vinegar before meals, it can be problematic for some conditions. Be sure to schedule an appointment if you are wondering if simple apple cider vinegar can help you.

[1] Shishehbor F, Mansoori A, Shirani F. Vinegar consumption can attenuate postprandial glucose and insulin responses; a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2017;127:1-9.

Katy Morrison, ND, LAc