Balsamic vinegar has been coveted by Italians for centuries. Over the past 30 or so years the popularity in the U.S. of the dark, syrupy ambrosia has soared and has become loved by foodies, used sparingly by chefs and often too liberally by home cooks.
Forgetting the exquisite culinary joy that comes with the almost magical liquid, the medicinal prowess of balsamic vinegar is legend. It was thought to be good for everything from heart palpitations and labor pains to a cure for the plague.
Well now we’re told that some balsamic vinegars may be tainted with lead, a highly toxic heavy metal.
Jane Kay writes in the Environmental Health News that “although the amount of lead in vinegar is small, experts say regularly consuming it may pose a risk, particularly to children.”
She says that eating one tablespoon a day of some balsamic or red wine vinegars can raise the lead level in a young child by more than 30 percent.
Some imported brands had so much lead that people who consumed one tablespoon per day would be exposed to seven to 10 times the maximum daily level of lead set by California, the EHN story reported.
Opinions vary widely on the source of the lead.
Some toxicologists blame heavy metals in the Italian soil. Others hypothesize that production and storage — not the soil — are the main sources of lead contamination.
Seven years ago, the Environmental Law Foundation tested about 60 vinegar products. Forty-seven had lead, all red wine or balsamic red wine vinegars.
They found that the more expensive vinegars – those aged 12 or more years and costing from $25 to more than $300 – contained more lead than the quick-brewed, much cheaper types.
It has long been known that lead can damage people’s neurological systems, especially the developing brains of young children’s.
Lead also is a carcinogen, and in adults, it is linked to cardiovascular, kidney and immune system effects, Kay writes in her very detailed piece.
Of additional concern is that vinegars are acidic and make the metal fully soluble so it’s more easily absorbed into the bloodstream.
Warning signs are posted in the vinegar sections of some California groceries. This, because of the state’s Proposition 65, that requires consumers to be notified when products contain chemicals tied to cancer, birth defects or reproductive toxicity.
Vinegar industry lawyers have challenged the consumption figures used to determine whether the products violate the state guideline, Kay wrote.
There is no dispute that for most children, the biggest risk of lead exposure comes from old, deteriorating house paint and tap water, not from vinegar, Kay writes.
But Prof. Bruce Lanphear, a professor of children’s environmental health at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, says that even the smallest amounts of lead aren’t known to be safe for a child’s developing brain.
“So, we should, whenever possible, minimize or eliminate exposure,” Lanphear told Kay.
Balsamic has become far too important to too many cooks to do without.
Its thick concentrated flavor comes not from boiled-down wine as many believe, but rather the must, the juice, skin and seeds from freshly pressed Lambrusco or sweet white Trebbiano grapes.
These are then boiled down to a dark syrup and aged in succession of different sized wooden barrels. The oak, chestnut, cherry wood, ash, mulberry and juniper each adds its own charm and characteristics to the brew.
I spoke to a pediatric nutritionist who believes it’s “highly unlikely” that children – those most at risk from lead – will consume a tablespoon of vinegar a day. But it’s good, she said, that people understand the potential hazard.
However, it appears easy for parents to avoid the risk by switching to a vinegar that’s not balsamic nor red.
Here is a link to the very comprehensive ENS report.
11/10/09 7:56 AM