February 2019 Issue
Ask the Expert: Switchel Makes a Comeback
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN
Vol. 21, No. 2, P. 10
Q: What is switchel, and is there evidence behind its touted health benefits?
A: Also called switzel or haymaker's punch, switchel is a beverage, a thirst quencher dating back to colonial times. Today, with the emphases on both physical activity and gut health, switchel is making a comeback. It's believed to help boost electrolytes and benefit gut health, but there's little to no research on these or other purported benefits.
Some believe that communities native to the West Indies brought switchel to the United States, while others say Amish communities, which still serve it, may be responsible for its introduction.1 The drink is made from water, a sweetener, ginger, and apple cider vinegar. Originally the sweetener used was molasses, but maple syrup, honey, or brown sugar also can be found in modern recipes.
A few hundred years ago, there were few refreshing drinks to enjoy after a day of farming in the hot sun. Lemons and limes were only available seasonally, and rapid transport and refrigeration wasn't available for wide distribution. Vinegar, on the other hand, was cheap, abundant, and easily accessible. Often, wine, beer, and mead turned to vinegar before being consumed, at which point their prices would be reduced or they would be used for food preservation (eg, pickling).
Modern Functions and Evidence
Recently, switchel has made a comeback, with numerous companies making bottled versions and homemade recipes appearing online. The beverage is touted to have numerous benefits, including improved gut health, electrolyte replenishment during exercise, and blood sugar stabilization. However, there has been no research on switchel's connection to any of these health benefits.
Furthermore, there's little evidence linking consumption of apple cider vinegar to weight loss.2,3 (For more information, see the article "Apple Cider Vinegar and Weight Loss" in the September 2015 issue of Today's Dietitian.)
In regard to switchel's function as a sports drink, Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, a certified athletic trainer and sports dietitian at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, says, "While the sweet and tangy combination of ingredients in switchel might please the taste buds, it does not equate to a recipe for a sports drink. Sports drinks are designed to help replenish what's expended during high-intensity physical activity. This boils down to carbs, fluid, and electrolytes—especially sodium, chloride, and potassium."
As some versions of switchel are made with molasses and therefore contain some potassium, she says it might help replenish some fluid, carbs, and maybe potassium, but not essential sodium. "[Sodium] is the most plentiful electrolyte lost in sweat," explains White, who also has concerns about the acidity of the vinegar aggravating gastrointestinal symptoms, especially during exercise.
Recommendations for Clients
There's no harm in clients trying switchel or drinking it for mere enjoyment; however, any of the touted health benefits are unfounded at this time. If a client is adamant about switchel's health benefits, practitioners may choose to review each of the ingredients found in the beverage and debunk myths surrounding them.
For the RD's reference, popular bottled varieties of switchel are sold by Up Mountain, with an 8-oz serving providing 54 kcal, 13 g carbohydrate, 10 g sugar, and no protein or fat. Other switchel producers include Superior Switchel and Cide Road.
Clients and RDs can make their own switchel with the accompanying recipe online, courtesy of Carlene Thomas, RDN, of CarleneThomas.com.
— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (http://tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. Her four cookbooks are Smart Meal Prep for Beginners, The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook, The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, and The Greek Yogurt Kitchen. She's a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to US News Eat + Run, Muscle&Fitness.com, and MensJournal.com.
1. Bramen L. Switchel: drinking vinegar to stay cool. Smithsonian.com website. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/switchel-drinking-vinegar-to-stay-cool-98891755/. Published September 8, 2010. Accessed December 12, 2018.
2. Darzi J, Frost GS, Montaser R, Yap J, Robertson MD. Influence of the tolerability of vinegar as an oral source of short-chain fatty acids on appetite control and food intake. Int J Obes (Lond). 2014;38(5):675-681.
3. Kondo T, Kishi M, Fushimi T, Ugajin S, Kaga T. Vinegar intake reduces body weight, body fat mass, and serum triglyceride levels in obese Japanese subjects. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2009;73(8):1837-1843.