Why is There Lead in My Balsamic Vinegar?

030080-1.jpgDo you ever read the fine print on your vinegar? I certainly did not, until one day I noticed my organic balsamic vinegar had a Proposition 65 warning!  In fine print, the label reads:

 This product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. 

There’s lead in my vinegar! Sure, I accept there is lead in my children’s toys, but in the vinegar we love on our salads…that’s alarming!  According to Napa Valley Naturals, makers of my favorite organic olive oil and balsamic vinegar,

All balsamic and red wine vinegars contain naturally occurring lead. Lead is naturally absorbed by all things that grow in the ground, including the grapes used to make vinegar. Most balsamic and red wine vinegars have lead levels equal to or less than 34 parts per million. An average person would need to consume 1 to 2 cups of balsamic or red wine vinegar per day to reach the Proposition 65 lead level minimum threshold, which includes a 1000-fold safety margin.

This may be true, that the lead level is low in balsamic vinegar, but in combination with all of the other ways my children may be exposed to lead, I am concerned.  Also, if lead is naturally absorbed from the soil by plants, wouldn’t all our food contain lead? Why doesn’t my red wine vinegar contain the Proposition 65 warning?

In 2004, the Environmental Law Foundation of Oakland filed suit against vinegar makers and sellers.   “There are balsamics that don’t have elevated lead, which tells us it (safe manufacturing) can be done,” said James Wheaton, head of the Environmental Law Foundation.  This is one of the first cases to use California’s right-to-know law into the grocery store.

There is some debate as to the cause of lead in balsamic vinegar, whether it is naturally occurring or a part of manufacturing.  Tangergreen writes,

I have encountered two explanations of this, the first being that lead gets into vinegar during the process of manufacturing, and the other being that wine grapes suck lead up out of the ground. There seems to be some bias behind both of these explanations, leaving us, the consumer, with only the fact that there is enough lead in red wine vinegar and balsamic vinegar to merit the proposition 65 warning.

The manufacturing of balsamic vinegar is similar to the production of fine wine. Does that mean there is lead in my wine?  Well, at least my gasoline is lead-free.

Image courtesy of WorldPantry.com.

Comments

  1. That’s interesting. I had no idea. I’ve been enjoying balsamic and oil dips with bread as a good way to increase healthy fats and decrease cholesterol.

    The other day, I found pomegranate vinegar here in Korea and it would be very tasty on salads. I’m not sure how common it is around the world, but it’s worth checking out. Pomegranates are also heart-healthy. :)

  2. I too have been trying to figure out how lead gets into balsamic vinegar. So, wine making grapes absorb lead and grapes we eat and make into raisins and grape juice does not? And how about chocolate and sweet pickles. How does lead get into these products? What a crazy world we live in – a world where businesses do not have to fully disclose how toxins get into the products we eat, wear, and use.

  3. Does anyone know which, if any balsamic vinegars do not have excess lead? I loved my vinegar but am disheartened by this information!

  4. Robin, do you live in CA? Our local coop has a prop 65 warning by the ones that have a higher lead content. The Napa Valley Naturals one pictured above is not under the sign, but the label says it has lead.

  5. We have small children so I have been doing some research. Lead in balsamic appears to come from two sources; lead in the old plumbing in Italy and straight from the over worked land where this same lead has been leaching and recycling for centuries. So what is an acceptable level of lead for my children? I say none, if I can help it. I recently found a small company (O Olive Oil) out of California that has begun making excellent California balsamics certified lead-free. Ordered a bottle and it is delicious! Bye, bye Italian balsamic. Has anyone been following the scandal around Italian olive oil? Yucck!

    • Jamie, thank you for sharing O Olive Oil! We hadn’t heard of it before – wonderful alternative to the leaded Italian options, especially with our little ones. After searching online, we discovered that even Costco is selling a few different 3 packs of O Olive Oil. Many places to buy it. Thanks again!

  6. Lead is not a very water soluable element. The only way to get concentrations of lead in food, or potable liquids is to raise the acidity, or decrease the pH. Vinegar has a very low pH, so more lead can dissolve in this solution. Therefore it contains more lead, around 30ppm. Foods which uptake lead from soils cannot contain lead above the soluable limit. You would have to eats hundreds of apples or corn, to expose yourself to enough lead to be toxic. At this point, the lead poisoning is the least of your concerns as you probably wouldn’t be able to leave the toilet.

    The reason lead is toxic is because it is not very soluable in water. This means living organisms have not been exposed to much lead through our evolution, we could not build up an resistance to it. You can’t get used to what’s not there.

    Sean

  7. Thank you for this site. I’ve been talking to Whole Foods employees (off and on) about this since the signs were posted. Now, signs are posted that say Red Wine vinegar also contains lead. If the grapes absorb it, then grape juice should also have this warning, but it doesn’t. I’ve contacted the CA State Dept. of Agriculture about this. I don’t know what other state agency to contact, but there should be someone to hold accountable for the posting of these signs, if the lead level are hundreds of times below the level required by the legislation.

  8. Mary, keep us posted as to what you find out.

  9. Lead is leached by acidic foods especially. I would wonder if there was some lead somewhere in the processing equipment.
    I have heard a story about a man who had severe lead poisoning from making wine in an old bathtub- another source of lead.

  10. I hope Sean is correct about the vinegar/acidity concentrating the lead from the soil. But I wonder about my favorite grape juice, Concord and if it is sufficiently acidic to concentrate lead…

  11. There is a lot of information about lead in Bill Bryson’s very readable paperback “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” which i’ll quote here:

    “Clair Patterson (who was, first name notwithstaning, an Iowa farm boy by origin) . . . established that we had a lot of lead in the atmosphere-still do, in fact, since lead never goes away- and that about 90 percent of it . . . [came] . . . from automobile exhaust pipes. . . before 1923 there was almost no lead in the atmosphere, and that since that time its level had climed steadily . . . He now made it his life’s quest to get lead taken out of gasoline. . .It would prove to be a hellish campain. Ethyl was a powerful global corportion with many friends in high places. . . to his great credit, Patterson never wavered or buckled. Eventually his efforts led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and finally to the removal from sale of all leaded gasoline in the United States in 1986. Almost immediately lead levels in the blood of Americans fell by 80 percent. But because lead is forever, thos of us alive today have about 625 times more lead in our blood than people did a century ago. The amount of lead in the atmosphere also continues to grow, quite legally, by about a thousand metric tons a year, mostly from mining, smelting, and industrial activities. As for the Ethyl Corporation, it’s still going strong. . .according to its 2001 company accounts, tetraethyl lead (or TEL as it calls it) still accounted for $25.1 million in sales in 2000 (out of overall sales of $795 million). . . In its report the company stated its determination to ‘maximize the cash generated by TEL as ists usage continues to phase down around the world . . .”

    So if we want to avoid lead altogether, maybe we just shouldn’t breathe?

  12. To add to my very long previous post, for those who are interested, Bill Bryson’s source for the quote “those of us alive today have about 625 times more lead in our blood than people did a century ago” is “Nation”, March 20, 2000.

  13. Barbra Leigh says:

    Thanks you thank you so much for this info
    Barbra :O)

  14. This report is incomplete and irresponsible.

    In this report, there are no brand comparisons, no lead measurements, no clarification on balsamic vinegar, and no comparisons between foods with lead and that consumed by using leaded crystal or china.

    Get better data before you write an article, Ms. Lance. You’ve done a disservice here thinking you were being *of* service.

    Lead is in food. Lots and lots and lots of different foods.

    For example, have you compared the lead in balsamic vinegar to that found in potatoes, which always have lead? Potatoes in households are a lot more common than balsamic vinegar.

    And, is the amount of lead an infinitesimal one or a harmful one? Give us some numbers to compare — is this an extremely small amount of lead that would be in *anything* that was grown on soil?

    And what’s the difference between the amount of lead in different foods and the amount of lead leached into foods from china or leaded glass crystal?

    Even more basic — What kind of balsamic vinegar are we talking about? Made where? From what? In the United States, most balsamic vinegar is wine vinegar with caramel color.

    Or by balsamic vinegar do we mean the real deal — aged balsamico traditionale — from Modena, Italy?
    Does that balsamic have lead?

    Ms. Lance, do you mean that? Specifics make all the difference. They’re nowhere in your report. Please perform due diligence as a journalist before your write.

  15. Yeah maria,

    You tell em. So tired of all the fear mongering about any and everything in our lives. Especially when the spreaders of oh so many baseless fears haven’t a real clue as to what they’re talking about. You keep them honest. I’ll support you any way I can.

  16. John Sellers says:

    Once lead enters your body, generally never leaves. It collects in the bones and stays there permanently.

    Doctors will often do not test properly for it, because absence of lead results in blood tests is likely because it is not soluble. There is the possibility of a false negative. Thus tests do not eliminate the possibility of lead being in your bones. By first applying a chelating agent before testing, the lead can be made soluble and then the test would be much more sensitive and would reliably detect the presence of lead in the bones as the would then be circulating in your blood.

    Lead can be removed from your body and bones, but the treatment has to carried out with great care because it involves using a stronger chelating agent which combines with the lead to make it soluble and then flushed from the body. The danger is that if the chelating agent is not correctly used, it can leach other materials from the bone such as calcium thus doing you damage….like the old experiment of soaking chicken bones in vinegar until they become rubbery because the calcium is leached out.

    I am not a doctor or expert, but I am passing this information along from my dad, who was a chemist, and worked as a test engineer all his life. One job he had for several years was in a lead-zinc mill.

  17. Thank you so much for posting this. I am 8 months pregnant and nearly passed out when i read the warning label at Whole Foods at their salad bar that their balsamic vinegar contains led which causes birth defects! i have been eating a ton of salads (trying to be healthy!) and alas, there seems to be a problem with nearly everything these days…so disheartening, but thank you for investigating.

  18. I know that the vast majority of non-manufactured food in our society doesn’t require nutritional analysis because it falls under the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) rules promulgated by the FDA. In a nutshell, it says that if experts believe a substance has been in long use by people as a food, and it is generally recognized as safe (such as potatoes) then there’s no need to analyze it for nutritional purposes or test for safe consumption. If a risk becomes known that was not previously known or well understood, then regulation may ensue. For example: if it was found that potatoes from Idaho had levels of lead high enough to trigger California’a prop 65 warning, then they would have to be so labeled – even though they had been consumed for many years without previous knowledge of any problem. This really disturbs those of a particular mindset that hold tradition and the past as having all the answers for what should be obvious reasons. Then, there are others who fear that they will have to make decisions with imperfect information, and they too resent efforts to inquire into areas such as are discussed in the above article.

    I think Ms. Lance did a very good job balancing the issues of lead in balsamic vinegar and other foods. If some find that it is incomplete, or not of sufficient depth, then they should get off their whiney butts and do their own work to find out this information and then publish their work as laudably and graciously as did Ms. Lance.

  19. edward cook says:

    something else to worry about all the chemicals added to our food nowdays ,we are slowly being poisened by food manufactures who don,t give a shit about health as long as they can find a cheaper way to produce there products

    • I honestly side with you Edward. Unfortunately, this is the reality and the industry needs to clear things up in my view because there is growing concern daily and they just seem to be just changing the writing on the labels to make us think they are better but they are not. They are following this trend marketing to those who don’t know better. But thanks to Prop 65 at least I am warned and prompted to find out more before I purchase a product. We as consumers have to take responsibility for our health because the industry is not nor is the government. It’s unfortunate but true. If we don’t push back, it’s going to get worse.

  20. If it is part of the grape growing process, since led comes from the soil, do grapes also contain lead?

  21. Some people are confused about “Organic”. organic doesn’t mean it is better for you, it only means that it has not been grown with artificial fertilizers and not sprayed with pesticides. Organic foods are just as if not more exposed to Nature and natural fertilizers. That means that what ever is in the soil, including disease and chemicals and depletion of minerals or excessive minerals, makes the plants just as dangerous or not dangerous as those grow differently. Yes, we would all like our food to be chemical free but “Organic” doesn’t mean your food only has “nutrition”. I grow food in my backyard but i have no control of what the businesses around me are squirting out of their venting systems or what my have been under my crops before I got there.

  22. My understanding is that red wine and balsamic vinegar all contain trace amounts of lead. This would normally be totally natural and safe. But the main problem is with Italian imports, because their soil still have residue of those lead pipes in the ground from since the Roman times. I guess if they don’t go through the procedure to prove to the state that the lead level is safe, then the balsamic would just get labeled with the Prop 65 warning without benefit of the doubt.

  23. ….so, that brings me to the next question: is there also lead in red wines?

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