Question: We attended Plantstock and one of the things that was being promoted there was infused balsamic vinegars. I took a look at some of the nutritional info on a couple of the infusions. Here's an example:
A couple of them (read chocolate, chocolate rasberry, ...) seemed to have the sense of a pleasure trap food, although I know when mixed with green leafies they act as a catalyst for nitric oxide production. But what surprised me was the calorie density, which was north of 1000 cal/# as in the one I referenced above. Guess it's not quite as bad as sugar, but it's in the agave/maple syrup range. I would assume you would suggest using these as condiments, but do you have any general comments about these?
Answer: I agree with you and have for a long time. This issue first came up when I was with Pritikin when the Chef, brought in some of these infused flavored balsamic vinegars and also some balsamic reductions and glazes.
When he first brought them in, we immediately knew something was up cause they tasted WAY too good :) and clearly rung the pleasure trap bell. They just tasted too good and many people who tasted them just wanted "more." For some who tried them, they caused a spike in their blood sugars.
After looking into them, and understanding how they were made and what they were really the equivalent of, we decided against using them. We saw them basically as "added sugar" and counted them as such.
Most simple plain vinegars like Apple Cider, Red Wine and Rice Wine vinegar contain about 0-1 gram of sugar in them (if any) and about 2-5 calories per serving (1 tbsp or 15 grams). You may often see these with 0 sugar listed and 0 calories as they get to round down these numbers on the label.
I have never really worried about these and recommend their use as a salad dressing/condiment. These basic plain vinegars are somewhat tart, do not trigger the pleasure trap and make no significant contribution of calories or sugar.
Balsamic vinegars are basically made from fermented grape juice and some have the same numbers as above. However, you may find some that have about 1-2 grams of sugar listed and about 5-10 calories per serving. These are also somewhat tart and I have never really cared much about these either, especially if they are using a tbsp or two of it on a huge salad or a few servings of vegetables.
However, these flavored infused balsamic vinegars can have 30, 35 or more calories per tbsp and can be very sweet.
They achieve this several ways. In the making of balsamic vinegar, the juice (or "must") can be cooked down till it is concentrated at least 50% or more. In addition, it is aged in wood casks and during the aging process, evaporation happens, concentrating the product even more. Some do one, some do both and you may often see these on the label listed as cooked must, concentrated must, aged must or any combo of these. Some also add fruit puree and some even add sugar.
These are often promoted and sold as Flavor Infused Balsamic Vinegars, sometimes as Balsamic Reductions, sometimes as Balsamic Glaze and sometimes as just plain old Balsamic Vinegar. The only way to know for sure, is to check the Nutrition Facts label & the ingredient list, looking at the calories and the grams of sugar per serving on the label and the ingredient list. Most of these, if they have a nutrition facts label, will even list 25, 30, 36 or more calories per serving and 7 or even 8 grams of sugar per serving. (FYI - I have seen balsamic reductions/glazes with as much as 60 calories per tbsp.)
Let's put this in perspective.
These flavor infused balsamic vinegars that are 36 calories per tbsp and have 7-8 grams of sugar are ~1050 calories per pound.
Fruit juice concentrate (which counts as an added sugar) has about 30 calories per tbsp and is ~950 calories per pound
So, these flavor infused balsamic vinegars are slightly more concentrated in calories/sugar then fruit juice concentrate.
Pure maple syrup (which counts as an added sugar) has about 39 calories per tbsp and 9 grams of sugar and is ~1150 calories per pound.
So, these flavor infused balsamic vinegars are slightly less concentrated in calories/sugar then maple syrup, but not by much.
Even more perspective...
If you mix 14 grams of maple syrup with 1 gram of water, you end up with the exact same amount and concentration of calories/sugar per tbsp as the flavor infused vinegars.
Or, dissolve 1.75 to 2 tsp of sugar in each tbsp of the plain vinegar and you again have the exact same amount and concentration of calories/sugar per tbsp as the flavor infused vinegars.
So, those who are using these higher calorie premium flavor infused balsamic vinegars may not realize they are basically pouring the equivalent of a sugar syrup with a calorie/sugar concentration somewhere between fruit juice concentrate and maple syrup on their food.
If you are using a basic plain rice, red wine or apple cider vinegars, which have 0-5 calories, I have no problem with it.
If you are using the flavor infused ones (or the reductions or glazes), and they are 30-35 calories per tbsp (or more), understand it is almost the same as using maple syrup and it now counts as an added sugar and you must be very aware of its calorie density, sugar density and its potential impact on blood sugar, caloric intake, etc and its potential to trigger the pleasure trap.
Remember, as I explained in this previous article, concentration is the issue and these infused vinegars are very concentrated. You can think of these as Balsamic Crack :)
A Date With Disaster: The Pleasure Trap of Whole Natural Foods
And so yes, my guidelines for added sugar would apply to them, which is no more then 5% of calories from added sugars.
For someone consuming 1500 calories, it would allow up to 75 calories, which would be slightly more then 2 tbsp of these flavor infused vinegars.
For 2000 calories, it would allow up to 100 calories, which would be just under 3 tbsp of these vinegars per day.
So, if someone is using more than 2-3 tbsp of these a day, that alone is causing them to exceed my sugar guidelines.
And, if you struggle with the pleasure trap, any amount may be too much.
UPDATE 9/62016: My wife and I were out shopping the last few days and while we were out, we looked at some of the available premium balsamic vinegers and found ones even more calorie rich then the ones above. Here are three examples of what we found..
Here is one with 40 calories and 9 grams of sugar per tbsp. The ingredients are listed as cooked grape must and wine vinegar
Here is one with 45 calories and 11 grams of sugar per tbsp. The ingredients are listed as Cooked grape must and wine vinegar
Here is one with 48 calories and 10 grams of sugar per tbsp. The ingredients are listed as Cooked grape must and wine vinegar. (I think the 10 grams of sugar is rounded down from 12)
At 45 & 48 calories, that is now the same as a tbsp of granulated sugar!