Vegan food is becoming more and more important in the industrialised world. Therefore, many people are now asking themselves which foods are really produced without animal-based products and can be consumed without hesitation. For balsamic vinegar, which is often used as a seasoning in dressings and marinades, the short answer is that most balsamic vinegar is vegan, but some is not. To get into more detail, it depends on the specific type of balsamic vinegar you buy, and the ingredients used. In this article you will learn directly from the vinegar producer from Italy when an Aceto Balsamico is really vegan.
Basic ingredients of a balsamic vinegar are vegan
To answer the question of whether balsamic vinegar is vegan, we need to point out that there are different types of balsamic vinegar, that can be clearly identified by the name on the label. As far as the ingredients are concerned, we can briefly summarise the following:
- Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena / Reggio Emilia POD (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena / di Reggio Emilia DOP) is made only from cooked grape must that is matured for at least 12 years in a series of wooden barrels.
- Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI (Aceto Balsamico di Modena IGP) is the result of a blend of cooked grape must and wine vinegar. The possible additives are also regulated. For example, a defined amount of E 150 sugar caramel may be added for "recolouring", which is to be considered suitable for a vegan diet. All other additives are prohibited.
- (Modern) Balsamic vinegar is not a protected trademark, so there are no specifications regarding the ingredients. Pretty much anything that looks even remotely like the original can be offered. Not vegan products can therefore also be used as an ingredient in modern balsamic vinegar.
As we may see, Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena and Reggio Emilia PDO aswell as Balsamic Vinegar of Modena PGI is suitable for a vegetarian and vegan diet. However, if it is a modern balsamic vinegar, we recommend taking a look at the list of ingredients. This way, it can be ruled out that non-vegan additives have been added. For those who follow a vegetarian or a vegan diet, it is highly important to know not only the ingredients list of the products but also their production process.
Vegan Balsamic Vinegar: The production process is decisive
As mentioned above the basic ingredient in both types is cooked grape must. During the fermentation process, vinegar bacteria in the air ferment the alcohol in the fermented must into vinegar. This produces what is known as the vinegar mother, a gelatinous, stringy mass of vinegar bacteria. Some vinegar producers - especially in the industrial process - often add an "artificial" vinegar mother to speed up the fermentation. The added mother of vinegar can also be derived from animal-based products such as milk or honey, making the balsamic vinegar no longer vegan. In the case of Modena and Reggio Emilia balsamic vinegars the amount of vinegar bacteria in the air is high enough, due to the fact that the vinegar is usually made over a period of years, to make the addition of vinegar mother of other substances unnecessary.
Another aspect of the production process that determines whether a balsamic vinegar is vegan is the filtering method. Membrane of animal origin can be used for this as they have particularly fine pores. If the balsamic is filtered in this way, it comes into contact with animal-based products and is no longer vegan. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find out if a balsamic vinegar has been filtered with an membrane of animal origin. You can now find vegan labels on cheap aceto balsamico from the big supermarket chains. But beware, there are many different labels, all with slightly different meanings. It is also very rare to find vegan labels on high-quality balsamic vinegars, as the smaller producers cannot afford the expensive fees.
If you want to play it safe, choose an traditional balsamic vinegar POD (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale DOP). According to Reggio Emilia vinegar maker Giovanni Cavalli, an Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale is not filtered with an membrane of animal origin, nor is a vinegar mother of animal origin used. He explained to us: „The consistency of a Traditional Balsamic Vinegar, after years of ageing in barrels, makes it far too thick to be filtered with a membrane, so it is always a vegan product.“
It is also worth mentioning that balsamic vinegar is a purely natural product. It is always possible for insects to get into the must during the harvest or for a vinegar fly to land in the vinegar. Therefore is no guarantee.
Packaging is vegan - seals are not
The final point to discuss briefly is the packaging of balsamic vinegar. Balsamic vinegar is usually packaged in glass bottles and sealed with either a screw cap or, in the case of high quality balsamic vinegars and traditional balsamic vinegars a cork. Up to this point, the product packaging is vegan. However, it is not possible for the consumer to determine whether the colours used on the label have been produced and used with the help of animal organisms. As with other food packaging, this varies from producer to producer.
Some traditional balsamic vinegars are also sealed with a sealing wax. The main components of sealing wax are turpentine and shellac. While turpentine is of vegetable origin, shellac is extracted from the excrement of the lacquer scale insect. The seal of a Tradizionale is therefore not vegan, but there is only a small amount of bottles of traditional balsamic vinegar, which are sealed. The seal is mainly found on bottles from Reggio Emilia, as can be seen in the picture.
Conclusion: Ingredients are vegan - balsamic production is key
Because balsamic vinegar does not contain any animal-based products, it can be described as vegan. However, it is the way it is made that matters. When buying balsamic vinegar, make sure it comes from Modena or Reggio Emilia, where there is no need to add vinegar mother made from vegan products. Unfortunately, as a consumer you cannot tell if a modern balsamic vinegar has been filtered with a membrane of animal origin. If you are unsure about your choice of balsamic vinegar, play it safe and look for the 'Tradizionale' label. With an traditonal balsamic vinegar POD (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena or di Reggio Emilia DOP), you can be sure that it is vegan.
By the way: Balsamic vinegar also contains many vitamins and minerals. The versatility of balsamic vinegar as a dressing for salads or as a condiment for all dishes makes it an excellent choice for vegans. Try our vegan caprese salad with balsamic tofu and see for yourself!
Get the recipe: vegan caprese salad with balsamic tofu
You will need the following for the marinated balsamic tofu:
- 35ml Traditional Balsamic Vinegar POD (a good quality balsamic vinegar PGI can also be used)
- 35 ml olive oil
- 2 tsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp maple syrup
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 finely chopped garlic clove
- Italian herbs of choice, e.g. basil, thyme, oregano
- Salt, pepper
- Chopped tomatoes
How to make a vegan caprese salad:
- Combine all the ingredients except the tomatoes and tofu in a bowl and mix well.
- Cut the tofu into even slices, add to the marinade and mix gently. Cover the bowl and refrigerate. Leave to marinate for at least 30 minutes. Ideally, make the marinated balsamic tofu in the evening so it can marinate overnight.
- Cut the tomatoes into slices and arrange them with the tofu slices like a classic caprese. Finally, drizzle a little traditonal balsamic vinegar over the top and your vegan caprese salad is ready to serve.