Imitation vanilla comes from synthetic vanillin, which mimics the flavor of natural vanillin, one of the components that gives vanilla its extraordinary bouquet.The first synthetics were made in Germany in the 1870s as pure vanilla was so expensive that only the wealthy could afford it. It was first made from coniferin, the glucoside that makes some pines smell a little like vanilla. In the 1890s a French chemist created a synthetic from euganol, found in cloves. The two most common sources for synthetic vanillin have been Lignin Vanillin, a by-product of the paper industry, which has been chemically treated to resemble the taste of pure vanilla extract, and Ethyl Vanillin, which is a coal-tar derivative and frequently far stronger than either Lignin Vanillin or pure vanilla.
In the late 20th Century a new variety of imitation vanilla came into the commercial market. Made from rice bran extract, it is a favorite of many large corporations as it is much cheaper than pure vanilla and easy to buy in the U.S. During the vanilla shortage and subsequent crisis between 2002 and 2005 it was put into frozen vanilla desserts and labeled as “natural flavors” or “other natural flavors.” While this is not in compliance with FDA regulations, the FDA did not intervene. This gave the distinct message that it was okay, so increasingly we’ll see “other natural flavors” for products that should contain pure vanilla.
Coumarin is a derivative of the tonka bean, which comes from Dipteryx ordorata, a tree native to Brazil. Some of the organic constituents that make up its flavor are similar to, or the same as, those in pure vanilla. Coumarin is frequently found in synthetic vanillas from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean as it’s cheap and it makes synthetic vanilla smell more like pure vanilla. Unfortunately, coumarin can be toxic, especially to the liver, and potentially carcinogenic, and has been banned from the United States since the 1950s. (Dicumarol, which is a derivative of coumarin, is the active ingredient in certain blood-thinning medications, and is legal in the United States.)