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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. And read this if you want to know how to find the best vanilla extract

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

Patricia Rain
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7 Responses

  1. I make my own pure soaps and lotions, and now want to try vanilla.
    I have been researching too much, I now have analysis paralysis..

    All sites I have viewed say FDA standard is 13.38 oz vanilla beans to 128 oz of alcohol; however your site has percent.
    So I am really confused. Thirteen percent would be around 17+ ounces of beans (a bit of rounding there). All say 35% alcohol, so then 65% distilled water( to be 100%)? That would be over around 384 oz(128 oz X 3). Just doesn’t seem right. Rarely do I see anything about dilution. Tried it years ago, and it smelled to much like alcohol and was bitter, that threw it out. Do not remember any ratios, but did not dilute.

    I am thinking of starting as a trial using 2 oz of beans. Using the calculations above it would be around 55 total ounces after dilution (using 35% alcohol & 65% water). I just don’t think 2 oz of beans would make that much even though that would be very nice.

    Thanks in advance for your help.


    1. Rita, I have never made soaps and lotions, and consequently I’m not in a position to guide you on this. The Standard of Identity is 13.35 ounces to 35% alcohol with the balance in distilled water per gallon. The commercial process for making vanilla extract is percolation. The alcohol is an efficient method of extracting flavor from the vanilla beans. The distilled water moves the alcohol through the percolation process and is not a filler. Vanilla is 70 proof; Spirits in the marketplace are 80 proof. For making your own vanilla extract to fragrance your products, you want to use a maceration process. You will need a minimum of 20 beans per 750 ml of spirits. Vodka and Everclear are two neutral spirits. Good luck with your endeavor!

  2. 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.

    1. Vanessa, there is a Standard of Identity for pure vanilla extract that is very strict and specific: 13.35% vanilla bean extractives, 35% alcohol, and the balance in distilled water, is required by law. The two excretions you mention have been used in imitation vanilla (though rarely these days). The Vanilla Company sells only pure vanilla extract and Natural Vanilla Extract, which contains pure vanilla extract and natural vanillin sourced from plants other than vanilla beans.

  3. What kind of alcoho used in making vanilla (essence,flavour,extract ,artificial or any other wich i dont know)…any form of vanilla (natural as well as artificial) contain wich type of alcoho( made from what ….)l….is the alchol used in this are same as alcohol consumptionable like vodka and all)…

    1. The alcohol used in making pure vanilla extract is almost always grain alcohol, though some people, like our business, use sugarcane alcohol as it is gluten-free and gmo-free. All alcohol used is cleared through the ATF. And yes, it is the same as is used in alcoholic spirits. Imitation vanilla doesn’t use alcohol. Pure Vanilla Flavor uses propylene Glycol instead of alcohol. I hope this helps.

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