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Vinegar, a truly magical cure

According to the BBC, there is some flimsy (and none too scientific) evidence on the health benefits of apple cider vinegar that include a reduction in cholesterol levels, arthritic inflammation, obesity and blood sugar levels. All one has to do is drink one spoonful of the stuff every day and hey presto, your health is yours to keep.

I do not have high cholesterol, I am neither arthritic nor obese and I am not diabetic. The only conceivable reason I would try this 'miracle cure' is that I am now over 50, so lawnmowers and health concerns get more attention than they strictly require. I also like strong, acidic flavours, such as lemons, grapefruits, Maynard Sours and, yes, vinegar.

So I gave it a go.

Ignoring the suggestion to dilute the vinegar, I poured myself a wee dram of apple cider vinegar and, taking a deep breath, knocked it back in one smug gulp. What little vinegar actually made it to my stomach made me feel rather sick. The rest, having inhaled a lungful of vinegar vapours, shot out through my left nostril in an explosive and excruciating snort.

It felt like someone had stuck a bottle brush up my nose and it left me with most of the symptoms of a bad cold for two days. The experience will not be repeated but if nothing else it did prompt my curiosity.

I decided to dig a bit deeper into this vinegar thing:

What, if any, are the health benefits of vinegar, apart from the fact that it makes salads, chutneys and ketchup taste better? Can it really save lives?

Well, for a start, many of the bacteria and fungi that can make us ill do not like acidic environments. So, if you are living in an area that is in the midst of a cholera epidemic, you are recommended to put vinegar on uncooked vegetables before consuming them. Salads, for example, proving that what we like is often (but not always) good for us. Or rather, that most of what chefs do involves killing bacteria. We, and all our presumed sophistication, are but the by-product of our evolution.

So vinegar can, indeed, be a life saver, but there is more. As a result of those same bactericidal and fungicidal properties, vinegar is also a food preservative, which is why we use it to pickle things in times of bounty, deferring their consumption for leaner times - and vinegar itself is nothing if not pickled fruit juice. Again, it is a life saver, this time because it helps us not to starve.

We have no doubt evolved over the last millennia, but not always in the right direction:

Human beings have long found mildly acidic drinks refreshing and have believed them to have medicinal properties. For example, Coca Cola, a beverage originally intended as an over-the-counter medicine. The acidity in Coca Cola comes partly from the fact that the drink is carbonated, which is why when you drink it flat, it tastes plain sweet, rather than sweet and sour and is not nearly as good. The ancient Greeks had their own take on soft drinks and used to use "Oxymel", a mixture of vinegar and honey, both for refreshment as well as for medicinal purposes, for not entirely bogus reasons: honey and vinegar are natural products that both have powerful antibiotic properties. As Oxymel does not have high concentrations of processed sugar in it, it is also unlikely to lead to an obesity crisis. In fact, Oxymel is sometimes used as an appetite suppressant (I certainly didn't feel like eating after my experience with just a spoonful of apple cider vinegar).

So I suppose you could argue that drinking honey and vinegar is healthy for you, but only if it means that you reduce your intake of modern-day carbonated junk drinks.

Either way, it turns out that vinegar really does offer some health benefits, when used sensibly, in reasonable quantities and suitably mixed with other ingredients. Rather like just about any foodstuff.

Whether apple cider vinegar really reduces your cholesterol levels is something that I will leave to more qualified people. In the meantime, I will watch and wait before ingesting anymore of the stuff, other than for dressing my lettuce.

But I am not yet finished on the subject of vinegar. I have a haunting story to tell. At least, it haunts me.

I have witnessed vinegar saving not just one life, but tens and even hundreds. If ever I have seen anything bring life back from the brink of agonizing death, vinegar was that silver bullet.

In 2003, a terrible drought affected most of central Argentina, the western, dry Pampas, an area the size of France of gently rolling savanna grasslands and scrub. Not quite the Australian Outback, but you get the idea. My family have farmed there for over a 100 years. Every 50 years, or thereabouts, the South Pacific gets colder than usual and cold dry winds blast up through Argentina, pushing the rain shadow of the Andes much further east. In the following months, well into 2004, it rained less than in the Atacama Desert, which is, give or take, the driest place on Earth. Thunderstorms past over, but no rain fell, just lightning, that set what tinder dry grass was left ablaze. The place turned to ash and dust, quite literally.

People imagine that in such droughts, cows die of thirst. They don't. In most places where cattle are ranched, the drinking water for cows is extracted from a water table, or is stored in reservoirs, or is piped or whatever. It doesn't depend on the rain, at least in the short term.

But if the rains don't come, the grass doesn't grow and so the cows die of hunger, not thirst, a far slower and infinitely more unpleasant death.

My grandfather saw a similar drought in the 1950s, but we, in our lifetimes, had never seen anything like it. After decades of building up our herd of cattle, dust-bowl o'clock hit the fan.

Out in the Pampas, herds are not made up of tens of cows, they are made up of thousands of cows. Fields are not 20 or 30 acres, in our part of Argentina they can be well over 2,000 hectares. You can gallop a horse from the homestead for half an hour just to get to a given field. Forage reserves consist of vast acres of grass that have dried into hay standing up. Silage and bailed hay simply isn't practical.

When the drought hits, no one will buy your animals because no one else has any grass and the cost of getting the cows to an area unaffected by drought is simply prohibitive. And even if you could sell the cows, the logistics of selling thousands of them in one go is just too much when everything else is going wrong at the same time.

We bailed fields of tumble weed, we bought peanut husks and sunflower cake from the cooking oil processors by the lorry load, but it stood as much chance as tea-light in a hurricane. The grass was all dead, a terrible ash grey colour. The cows had their calves in the Spring and started to die.

As a last resort, we bought urea and molasses blocks. Essentially, if you give a cow urea mixed with molasses in the right quantities, she will be able to eat the Sunday Times and survive. Or, more importantly, she could eat the ash grey dead tufts of savanna grasses and survive.

For a while, it worked. But then even the dead grass started running out and the cows, desperate for protein, started biting off whole chunks of the urea and molasses blocks.

The result if you are a ruminant? Acute urea poisoning, hyperammonemia, a rapidly progressing and highly fatal condition.

An hour after demolishing the urea block, Mrs Cow starts frothing at the mouth and trembling uncontrollably and down she goes with no future but an agonizing death.

Unless, of course, you give her... yes, you guessed it:


Vinegar, or rather acetic acid, lowers the pH in the rumen, preventing further absorption of urea into the bloodstream, and converting the remaining urea into ammonium acetate, which is like Häagen-Dazs to the rumen microflora - cows don't digest grass: they feed grass to the microflora in their gut and then they digest the blooming microflora.

We started buying 200 litre drums of industrial vinegar.

When a cow went down, usually near the water trough where the urea blocks were sited, we would fill a 2 litre bottle with vinegar and walk up to her. Driven crazy by pain, she would be aggressive, making violent and sudden lurches, but too weak, and trembling too much, to get up and mount an effective attack. In short, a terrible and pathetic sight.

Then, as we got closer, she would smell the vinegar. You didn't have to do much else after that. Mrs Cow just knows what is good for her and does it all for you. Put the bottle near her and she would lunge for it, wrapping her tongue round its neck and pulling it into her mouth, then sucking it dry in two or three huge gulps. Once she was finished, she would follow you, scrambling behind you on her knees, begging for more of the same.

The cows we treated got back on their feet to die another day, but we didn't save all of them. Some didn't make it to the water trough, some we just didn't find in time. But at least we tried.

So if you asked me if vinegar is a magical cure that can save lives, I would say:

Yes, definitely.

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