Is There Lead In Your Vinegar?

Posted Thu, 10/28/2010 - 7:21am by Camilla Cheung

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If you live in California, you may have noticed warning signs posted in the vinegar aisle of your local grocery store. A state law, Proposition 65, requires that stores post signs when there may be a health risk in their products. In this case, the sign warns:

"[B]alsamic and red wine vinegars may contain lead, a substance known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm."

The sign is enough to make a shopper think twice about buying balsamic or red wine vinegar, and perhaps opt for rice or cider vinegar instead. In other states, these same products have no warning signs.

How much lead is in balsamic vinegar?

But how much lead is really in these vinegars, and how did it get there? A special report on EnvironmentalHealthNews.org suggests that although the amount of lead in balsamic and red vinegars is minute, even trace amounts of the dangerous mineral should give us pause. Experts don't know exactly how lead is able to get into the vinegar, but speculate that it could be during the manufacturing process or that the grapes (from which balsamic and red wine vinegars are made) absorb trace amounts of lead from the soil and surrounding environment.

Ingesting lead can lead to neurological problems, especially in young children, in whom high levels of lead can cause developmental impairments and lowered IQ. Some experts believe that ingesting one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar every day might raise lead levels in children by up to 30 percent. Because vinegar is acidic, it actually facilitates the absorption of the lead into your body. No amount of lead consumption is safe — even trace amounts of 2 to 3 micrograms per deciliter can have discernible effects on children.

Several, though not all, brands of balsamic and red wine vinegar contained lead that was at levels higher than that allowed by the California government. Balsamic vinegars that had been aged for several years — the Modena-style balsamic vinegars favored by many gourmet cooks — contained the highest concentrations of lead. The discovery of these elevated levels of lead, as well as a lawsuit by the Environmental Law Foundation against 39 suppliers and retailers, led the San Francisco Superior Court to mandate the warning signs that are now seen throughout stores in California.

There are no definite studies that show that vinegar consumption can lead to developmental problems, and the decision has been a controversial one, with environmental groups on one side, and some vinegar companies on the other. Some vinegar companies, however, have chosen to comply with the state standards.

How to reduce lead exposure from vinegars

Not all brands of balsamic or red wine vinegars contain dangerous levels of lead. If a manufacturer or retailer can prove that their vinegar meets the Proposition 65 guidelines for safe levels of toxins in their products, they do not have to display the warning sign. Some companies have done just that, testing every batch of their vinegar products to ensure that they comply. A list of vinegar companies that do not violate the Prop 65 guidelines is available at the Environmental Health News website.

You can reduce your family's exposure to lead by choosing these green-labeled vinegars that clearly state that they meet the Proposition 65 guidelines. If you choose vinegars that comply with the standards, you do not have to go without the delicious flavors of balsamic and wine vinegars, as well as their numerous health benefits (including bioflavonoids, antioxidants that are also found in red wine).

Outside of California, companies are not generally required to put warnings on their products, and you may have no discernible way to know whether a manufacturer has elevated levels of lead in their products. You may wish to reduce your consumption of balsamic or red wine vinegars, or at least avoid the longer-aged vinegars. Use rice or cider vinegars instead for greater safety, while using balsamic vinegars less frequently.

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