The Mediterranean Diet’s Unsung Hero


Late last year, a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that women who follow a Mediterranean diet may live longer. The large-scale study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health was just the latest to join many others espousing this way of eating, which emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, protein from sources like fish, nuts, beans, and whole grains, and very little red meat or processed foods.

Yet another ingredient common in the Mediterranean is balsamic vinegar. This dark purple vinegar has a bit of a mundane reputation as olive oil’s partner in ho-hum salad dressings, but it deserves another look as a culinary and nutritional powerhouse. Traditionally hailing from Italy, it’s made from fermented grapes, so it does contain some sugar. But its sweet taste comes at a little caloric cost: a tablespoon contains just 14 calories (for comparison, an equivalent portion of olive oil contains about 120 calories!), and it adds loads of flavor to dishes without adding fat. That’s only the beginning of this condiment’s benefits:

•Balsamic vinegar was found to inhibit LDL (“bad” cholesterol) oxidation in a 2010 study in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology, keeping cholesterol in check.

•In a 2006 article exploring any possible medicinal uses of vinegar, authors Carol S. Johnston, PhD, RD, and Cindy A. Gaas, BS, noted that “many recent scientific investigations have documented that vinegar ingestion reduces the glucose response to a carbohydrate load in healthy adults and in individuals with diabetes. There is also some evidence that vinegar ingestion increases short-term satiety.”

•Researchers at Arizona State University found in 2006 that balsamic vinegar consumption can lower systolic blood pressure (the larger or first number in your blood pressure reading) by as much as 20 points. They also noted in their findings that balsamic vinegar reduces atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.

And the list goes on. Aside from using it in salad dressings, you can add it to marinades for a delicious sweet, smoky note. Before roasting, toss vegetables or meats with olive oil and balsamic for a hint of added flavor. Or use it during cooking, as in this quick, protein-packed chicken dish, paired with a salad of fragrant scallions, tart apples, earthy lentils, and delicate baby spinach. It even has a place at the end of the meal: reduce balsamic vinegar over low heat until syrupy and thickened and then drizzling over fresh strawberries for a dessert that’s both sweet and savory.