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Healthy Recipe Doctor

with Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

Elaine Magee's blog has now been retired. We appreciate all the wisdom and support she has brought to the WebMD community throughout the years.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is Balsamic Vinegar Leading to Lead Poisoning?

“Once in awhile I’ll eat whole wheat bread dipped in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I don’t do this too often. But the other day at the grocers while looking at their collection of balsamic vinegars a sign was posted warning customers that the vinegars contain lead?! How long has this been going on and how is lead getting into the vinegars? Now I’m worried.”

I’ve received a few questions about the lead content of balsamic vinegar on my Healthy Cooking message board, so I did a little research. In 2004, an environmental law group filed suit in the state of California claiming that lead levels in balsamic and wine vinegars violated California Prop. 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.

I wouldn’t throw your balsamic vinegar away, but I would stay tuned in in the coming years as they figure out whether the lead content in some types of balsamic vinegar might be higher than expected and if so, why.

Lead has been in the environment for ages as a toxic metal (it’s in the air, water, factory pollution, some pipes, old paint, some imported pottery, and in soil). People have been manufacturing and consuming balsamic vinegar for hundreds of years.

I looked up some details on how this type of vinegar is produced in THE FOOD ENCYCLOPEDIA. It is made from the cooked and concentrated MUST of white grapes in the area around Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. The juice of local Trebbiano grapes is aged in a succession of 12 kegs, each decreasing in size, made of different aromatic woods, such as juniper, mulberry, chestnut and red oak. Sounds simple enough, but this process can take from the required minimum of 12 years aged in wood to as long as 50 years! Perhaps the small amount of lead is transferred from the containers it is being stored in all those years? Or is it getting into the grapes through contaminated water in certain areas? Is it getting into the grapes from the soil? I’m just brainstorming here. Testing appears to be going on as we speak so perhaps we’ll know more in the near future.

Meanwhile, I personally would worry more about the lead in my environment (water, air, old paint etc.) and less about the balsamic vinegar I use a few times a week. Just my opinion!

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Posted by: Elaine Magee, RD at 7:00 am

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