The Differences Between Pure Vanilla Extract, Vanilla Flavors, and Imitation Vanillas
Life can certainly get complicated as new products flood the market and old products get rebranded. There are actually five different types of 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 this frequently, I decided to write an article specifically addressing what’s in the bottle and why it’s labeled the way it is. We’ll start with pure vanilla extract.
Pure Vanilla Extract
There is a Standard of Identity for vanilla extract in the United States. To be labeled 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. Some companies include one or more of these ingredients on their labels, but most do not. The same is true with alcohol. Grain alcohol is the most commonly used alcohol 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 sugarcane alcohol and contains no additional sugars or additives. As a result, our vanilla extract is gluten-free, sugar-free and gmo-free.
Vanilla flavor is made with required amount of vanilla bean extractives, but without alcohol. Propylene glycol is the most common substitute. 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 avoiding alcohol. Unfortunately, some people are allergic to propylene glycol; a reasonable substitute for vanilla flavor is pure ground vanilla bean powder.
Other Natural Flavors
Other Natural Flavors (known in the vanilla industry as WONFs) came onto the market during the vanilla crisis that began in 2000 after three cyclones struck Madagascar in just a few months. The vanilla industry was severely impacted, especially by Hurricane Huddah, an especially destructive cyclone. Prices for vanilla beans had been historically low after deregulation of the vanilla industry in the 1990s and growers tore up their crops. The cyclones destroyed at least 30% of the vanilla beans. As there was so little vanilla available, manufacturers wanted something affordable for flavoring frozen desserts, dairy, and packaged desserts.
Other Natural flavors are made from wheat germ extract and other plants that contain vanillin. (Natural vanillin is the fragrance and flavor that makes up about 25% of the aromatic properties of vanilla beans )
Now there is a product on the market made from highly genetically modified yeast and DNA created on a 3D printer. Wonfs sometimes contain synthetic vanillin to boost flavor.
Similar to Wonfs, natural flavors vary in their ingredients. The Vanilla Company currently is selling a double-strength all natural vanilla flavor 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 and the fact that so many small artisan companies simply could not afford it. I look at this product as a bridge to get through the current crisis. I suggest blending our natural flavors with our pure vanilla extract in order to give baked goods, ice creams or other products a rich flavor less expensively.
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 market, it is safe.
Far less than 1% of the so-called vanilla extracts or essences sold throughout Mexico and the rest of the Americas are pure vanilla extract or flavor. They are made from synthetic vanillin, with some containing 2% alcohol to act 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, 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.