I'm amazed at how superior your vanilla is!
- Des, The Grommet
I opened the bottle of your vanilla extract last weekend to bake some cookies and the difference in taste is extraordinary." – Judy

What’s the Difference Between Pure Vanilla Extract, Vanilla Flavors, Natural and Imitation Vanillas

Understanding vanilla product labels can certainly get complicated as new products flood the market and old products get rebranded. There are actually five different types of liquid vanilla in the marketplace right now and we’re not talking five different species here. We’re talking labels and what’s inside the bottles.

As I get asked about the difference between pure, flavor, natural, and imitation vanilla frequently, I decided to write an article specifically addressing what’s in the bottle and why it’s labeled the way it is.

For those looking for a cheap substitute to the real thing because it’s so expensive right now, this is also good to know.

We’ll start with pure vanilla extract.

What Makes Pure Vanilla Extract Pure?

There is a Standard of Identity for vanilla extract in the United States. To be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract, a gallon measure must contain 13.35% vanilla bean extractives (10-ounces of moisture-free solids), 35% alcohol, and the balance in distilled water.

What is not listed in the Standard of Identity is sugar, corn syrup, caramel color or any other additives pure vanilla may contain.

Some companies include one or more of these ingredients on their labels, but most do not – even though their pure vanilla contains it. The same is true with alcohol. Grain alcohol is the most commonly used alcohol in vanilla, but sugarcane alcohol is also used. Sugar or corn syrup are often used to mask the harsh notes of alcohol or to make the extract smell and taste better if the quality of the beans used were not good quality.

If you have issues with gluten or sugars, check with the company whose vanilla you’ve purchased. Rain’s Choice vanilla is made with sugar cane alcohol and contains no additional sugars or additives. As a result, our vanilla extract is gluten-free, sugar-free and gmo-free.

What Is Imitation Vanilla Made From? 

Imitation vanilla is synthetic vanillin made in a laboratory. If the product is clear, it’s 100% synthetic vanillin. If it is caramel color, it has been dyed with caramel color (which also contains sugar) or other dyes. If you purchase imitation vanilla in the U.S. super markets, it is safe.

Far less than 1% of the so-called vanilla extracts or essences sold throughout Mexico, the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas are pure vanilla extract or flavor. They are made from synthetic vanillin, with some containing 2% alcohol used as a preservative. They usually contain sugar and other ingredients, some of which may be considered carcinogenic in the U.S. There are no label laws in many countries in the Americas, and those that have them don’t enforce them.

Hopefully this information will help you make informed decisions about which liquid vanilla is best for your needs.

Is Vanilla Flavor Fake or Real? 

Vanilla flavor is made with required amount of vanilla bean extractives, but without alcohol. Propylene glycol is the most common carrier used for producing the flavor.

The Standard of Identity states that this product cannot be labeled extract due to the lack of alcohol. Vanilla flavor is a good choice for anyone who is avoiding alcohol. Unfortunately, however, some people are allergic to propylene glycol. In that case, a reasonable substitute for vanilla flavor is pure ground vanilla bean powder.

Natural Vanilla Extract in spoon

(aka “With Other Natural Flavors”)

Other Natural Flavors (known in the vanilla industry as WONFs which stands for “with other natural flavors”) came onto the market during the vanilla crisis that began in 2000 after three cyclones struck Madagascar in just a few months.

The cyclones destroyed at least 30% of the vanilla beans, and as a result, with so little vanilla available and costs soaring, manufacturers wanted something affordable for flavoring frozen desserts, dairy, and packaged desserts. (You can read more about what caused vanilla prices to soar here.)

To meet the demand for a more affordable vanilla, there is now even a product on the market made from highly genetically modified yeast and DNA created on a 3D printer

It should be noted that WONFs sometimes contain synthetic vanillin to boost flavor. So if synthetic is something you want to avoid, as we do here, be sure to read the label carefully. 

Natural Vanilla Extracts – 

Similar to WONFs, natural flavors vary in their ingredients. The Vanilla Company currently is selling a double-strength all natural vanilla extract and natural vanilla paste that contain a blend of pure vanilla extract and natural flavors made from plants other than vanilla. It smells very much like pure vanilla but without the deep notes of pure vanilla extract.

The decision to carry this product was made due to the extremely high cost of pure vanilla extract and the fact that so many small artisan companies simply could not afford it. Our company considers this product as a bridge to get through the current crisis.

If You Can’t Afford Pure Vanilla Extract, Our Natural Vanilla Extract Is a Great Substitute!

As with all our extracts, we have strict quality and taste controls to make sure you are getting the best on the market as our customers will testify, in fact, it took the product producer ten years to come up with a good natural vanilla extract that we approve of! And now with no surprise, so do our customers!

“I stepped out and gave this a try in vanilla ice cream and WOW it’s amazing. Flavored my ice cream perfectly. I bought the 32 oz and the minute it gets low, I’ll order another bottle. I can see many uses for this so I’m looking forward to trying it in other recipes. Fantastic product – very, very happy.” – Mark Butcher

More reviews can be found on the actual product pages. They are quite excited about it, but if you desire a stronger flavor, I suggest blending our natural flavors with our pure vanilla extract in order to give baked goods, ice creams or other foods a rich flavor less expensively.

Follow this link to visit our store to learn more and buy our Natural Vanilla Extract or here if you’re looking for Pure Vanilla Extracts

We hope this article has helped to clarify how to choose the best options for your needs.

Patricia Rain
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Patricia Rain

is an author, educator, culinary historian, and owner of The Vanilla Company (www.vanillaqueen.com), a socially conscious, product-driven information and education site dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla, and the support of vanilla farmers worldwide. She also does culinary presentations for food professionals, cooking schools, trade shows, food fairs, and private groups, and is a regular radio and TV guest.

Comments (1)

  • Sarah


    Thank you! I would have never known the difference between the labeling. Especially when it came to the difference of vanilla extract and pure vanilla extract.


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Why do our customers love Rain's Choice vanilla?

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For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see "Why is Vanilla so Expensive?"

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