As Canadians continue to play the un-favourite game of “is it just a sore throat or is it Omicron,” interest in supporting immune health is no doubt on the rise. So when a decades-old herbal remedy hit modern platforms, viewers unsurprisingly…ate it up.
Proponents are steeping ingredients like ginger, horseradish, onions and garlic cloves in apple cider vinegar, claiming that taking it as a shot every morning can boost your immune system. Called “fire cider,” one recipe, posted by user @northidahomade, has 4.1 million views and the hashtag #firecider has 9.6 million views on TikTok alone.
While dieticians agree that many of the ingredients in fire cider are considered to have components that support a healthy immune system, they caution that there hasn’t been much research on the long-term effects of these elixirs. There’s also no research looking at whether or not the antioxidants and vitamins in these ingredients are more or less potent when steeped in an acidic liquid, like vinegar.
Little evidence of ‘miraculous health benefits’
“There is little evidence to suggest that any one food product or drink has miraculous health benefits,” say Nataly Georgieva, RD, and Julie Mancuso, owner of Toronto-based JM Nutrition, by email. “That said however, foods such as onion, garlic, cinnamon and apple cider vinegar are of great nutritional value. They may also support the immune system. It’s important to keep in mind that the evidence ranges from solid to minimal to inconclusive, depending on the ingredient as the conducted study.”
The primary ingredient in fire cider, apple cider vinegar, has become a naturalist remedy in its own right, and is known to have at least some antimicrobial properties. A 2020 review of the vinegar — which is made from fermented apple juice — found some evidence that it may aid in weight loss, while the results of a separate study showed improvements in fasting glucose levels in patients with type 2 diabetes. However, apple cider vinegar is highly acidic, so it may also cause damaged dental enamel, an irritated or burned mouth or esophagus, or stomach upset.
Other ingredients in the fire cider like ginger may have some anti-oxidant and anti-nausea effects, garlic may have some anti-inflammatory properties as well as support cardiovascular health, and raw onions are rich in antioxidants and fibre — good for gut health. Honey, often added just before you drink the shot, also has some immune system and anti-microbial properties.
While each ingredient has some potential for improved health, there’s no proof that drinking them all together when you feel a scratchy throat coming on has any greater sickness-fighting benefits than just having them as part of a balanced diet.
“Can one or all of the aforementioned ingredients be helpful in fighting a cold? Possibly,” says Mancuso. “But again, this would require evidence-based studies to support such a claim. And studies in this area are insufficient.
“…Rather than looking for a quick cure-all, it is important to look at a strong immune system as something that can be achieved over time through a sustained wholesome, nutrient-dense diet.”
Spicy in the pantry and out
While the fire cider recipe evokes images of a simpler time and place, it’s recent history has been anything but tranquil.
Rosemary Gladstar, a former instructor at the California School of Herbal Studies, claims to have created the original recipe for fire cider in the early 1980’s in an effort to renew interest in medical herbalism. Gladstar writes that there were multiple similar tonics at that time under various names, with herbalists often swapping recipes and tips.
The herbalists’ claim to fire cider was challenged when Shire City Herbals trademarked a drink dubbed “Fire Cider” in 2012. The co-founder of the Massachusetts-based company, Dana St. Pierre, says that he learned the recipe from his grandmother and began selling it in trade shows across the country before formally copyrighting the name.
Soon after, multiple sellers on Etsy received warnings to cease using the term fire cider on their tonics.
The ensuing battle between the herbalists — who claimed fire cider is generic and should be free for anyone to use — and Shire City Herbals, spanned a Change.org petition with more than 15,000 signatures, multiple trademark infringement claims to Etsy HQ, an explosion in interest in distributing fire cider recipes, and a lawsuit.
In the end, after a trial that included herbalists picnicking in the courthouse lobby and offering shots of the embroiled brew to security guards, Judge Mark G. Mastroianni of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts ruled in favour of the herbalists. Fire cider, he declared, cannot be trademarked.
In lieu of damages, the three herbalists listed as defendants in the lawsuit asked for an apology.
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