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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 imitation and pure vanilla?

Let’s look at the so-called vanilla from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for the answer

A common misconception exists about vanilla from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. People rave to me about the fabulous deal they got on a giant bottle of vanilla extract in Mexico, Haiti, Guadeloupe, etc. It has such a unique flavor and it’s stronger than any vanilla they’ve ever used. And wow, was it inexpensive!

Well, sorry folks, it isn’t pure vanilla extract. In fact, the cheap, dark (or clear) product in the big bottle is not vanilla at all.  It is imitation vanilla with unknown ingredients!

Because vanilla originally came from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and because, at one time Mexico produced the world’s finest pure vanilla, it would seem plausible that it would still be true. In fact, more than 99% of all of the so-called vanilla extract bought in retail venues in Latin America is imitation vanilla.

Why produce imitation and not pure vanilla? Several reasons.  Read on:

Mexico had the monopoly on vanilla production until the latter part of the 19th century and the vanilla-growing region on the Gulf of Mexico was very prosperous. In the late 1800s, the French invested heavily in vanilla plantations in Reunion, the Comoro Islands, and later, Madagascar, and by the early 20th century these regions gained control of the world vanilla market.

In the early 20th century, the Mexican Revolution raged throughout the country, and for a while, was especially fierce on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The Mexican industry had to shut down for several years due to the war, and starting up production once the war ended, took time. Then the petroleum companies on the Gulf stripped the natural forests, making vanilla growing very difficult and, over time, it made the area increasingly hotter and less humid..  Mexico’s share of the world’s vanilla supply took a nosedive, but its reputation remained intact for decades.

In the 1880s the first synthetic vanillas came from Germany, providing a cheaper alternative to natural vanilla.  Soon it was discovered that synthetic vanillin could be made from paper pulp and coal tar. Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean began selling cheap synthetic vanillas hoping to cash in on Mexico’s vibrant history as the finest vanilla beans in the world. It worked.

By adding coumarin to synthetic vanillin, the flavor was a little more like pure vanilla. Coumarin can be toxic, especially to the liver. We’ve outlawed its use in the United States since the 1950s.  While most labels say, “No Coumarin,” don’t count on it!

Although there are label laws in Mexico they aren’t enforced; in some of the other countries there are no restrictions. So, don’t believe that the label gives you an accurate account of the ingredients. Needless to say, synthetic vanillas are a big industry as most tourists have no idea they are being duped and it’s an easy product to sell.

Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are poor countries and pure vanilla is expensive.  Most Mexicans buy imitation vanilla too.  If tourists are willing to buy the cheap imitations, all the better for the vendors.

Clear vanilla is pure, synthetic vanillin made by chemists. It’s often called “crystal vanilla.”  You can buy it in the US for about the same price.

Dark and murky is synthetic vanillin, most likely ethyl vanillin derived from coal tar. It may also be dark because it contains red dye that we’ve banned in the U.S. or it may contain caramel coloring.

Why does it smell so good?  It has no alcohol in it (or possibly 2% as a stabilizer). It may have a high concentration of synthetic vanillin, which makes it smell intensely like vanilla.  This is because both natural and imitation vanillin are an important part of the vanilla bouquet.  Imitation vanillin is only one fragrance.  Pure vanilla has over 500 organic components that make up its fragrance.

There are some vanilla-vanillin blends and some cheap pure vanilla extracts that contain 25% alcohol, but they aren’t worth buying either.

How much did you pay for it? This is the biggest tip-off. If it’s in a big bottle and you paid $20.00 or less, it’s not vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract usually costs more in Mexico than here in the US.

Don’t waste your money or endanger your health.  If you want synthetic, buy it in the States. It’s the same price as you’d pay in Mexico but American synthetics aren’t adulterated with dangerous additives.   If you want pure Mexican vanilla extract, buy it from a reputable US company that made it using Mexican vanilla beans.

And this leads us to the next question – Which pure vanilla extract is the best?

Among the pure vanilla extracts,  which one is the best? Is there a way of knowing by reading the label? What should you look out for? 

To answer those questions, please read my answer in “What’s the best vanilla extract?” You’ll learn how to make a considered choice.

Patricia Rain
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17 Responses

  1. I was given a bottle of clear Mexican vanilla purchased in Mexico.
    Usumacint . It says natural vanilla., the ingredients say pure vanilla. I have never used clear vanilla, but can see the value of it . Is it just as good as regular? I never buy imitation.

      1. Is dark vanilla pure vanilla? In a cooking show Christina Tosi talked
        about using dark vanilla extra for backing. She also mentioned white Vanilla extract., which she did not use. What is the difference? What has the strongest and best vanilla taste? I love your products!! Thank you, Nancy Weston

        1. Nancy, those are excellent questions. In the U.S. there is a Standard of Identity for pure vanilla extract. It requires a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans to a gallon, also containing 35% alcohol to 65% distilled water. Commercial extracts are made using a percolation system. Some people think the water is a filler. It isn’t. It’s required for the percolation. It would not work to have it all vanilla bean extractives and alcohol. (Contrary to what people often believe, a bottle of rum or vodka is about 40% alcohol._ That is required to be on the label of the bottle of extract. What isn’t required are whatever additional ingredients are added. Sugar, corn syrup, and caramel color are common ingredients in extracts. The caramel color is often added to darken the extract some as well as to add more sugar. Why sugar? The sugar helps to start the aging process and also to soften the nose of the alcohol. It isn’t required, but because there is such demand for extracts, many extracts are made and sold very quickly. This is especially true in 2020 as people are cooking at home much more. The Standard of Identity is the most effective way to determine if the vanilla is pure. The color of extract depends on quality of beans and ingredients. It should be a soft amber color. If the beans are high quality it may be a bit darker. However, it also depends on whether caramel color has been added, so dark isn’t always an indicator of quality. That said, clear “vanilla” is chemical vanillin and is not pure vanilla. It is often sold to customers who are doing cake decorating as they don’t want to darken frostings. And one last caveat. 99.9% of “extracts” purchased in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean are imitation vanillas. There is NO enforcement as to what the bottles contain. While coumarin is largely not used any longer to make the so-called extracts smell good, there are dyes and other ingredients that may not be safe. Because tourists have been going to Mexico for well over 100 years, and because Mexico is the birthplace of vanilla, the imitation market began in 1893 and has been very successful. DON’T BUY IT! Spend your money on a good meal or traditional crafts. It may smell wonderful due to chemicals such as synthetic vanillin and little-to-no alcohol. Do not believe what the label says; it is NOT vanilla. The Mexican vanilla industry is struggling to survive under challenging odds, including extreme heat, alternating drought and massive rainfall, and extremely limited forest. A bottle of PURE vanilla extract would cost as much in Mexico as it does here. For more information go to our FAQ section on the site. If your interest is piqued, please visit our site at https://www.vanillaqueen.com/store and purchase my book, “Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Most Loved Flavor and Fragrance.” Thank you.

  2. My husband picked up a liter of Triple Diamond organic dark vanilla in Juarez, Mexico, when he visited San Diego. Is this vanilla any good?

    1. Glenda, I think that depends upon what you consider good. It is imitation vanilla. The organic means nothing as the label laws are not enforced. Pure vanilla extract is not dark nor is it clear white. It is a soft amber color. Dark “vanilla” is often made from coal tar extractives. We have no idea what else may be in the bottle. It may smell wonderful, but that’s because it has maybe 2% alcohol in it used as a preservative. For more information go to: https://vanillaqueen.com/mexican-vanilla-extract. Regards, Patricia, VQ

  3. We have been buying Molina Vanilaa for years, but now you have me doubting that it is pure Vanilla. Is it?

    1. Martin, Mexico had less than 10 tons of vanilla harvested in the 2018 harvest at the end of the year as their industry is dying. That comes out to maybe 3 tons of vanilla beans. They sold their beans for between $800 and $1000 a kilo for the beans, which is why I’m not carrying pure Mexican vanilla extract these days. We both know how inexpensive Molina Mexican vanilla is. If I had purchased beans from Mexico and made extract from it, I would need to sell a pint of it for about $200. This kind of puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? Vanilla has always been expensive. Mexico has been selling imitations since the turn of the 20th century. Why? Partly because they still had the monopoly on vanilla beans worldwide at that time and tourists wanted something affordable. Separately, only a small percentage of people in Mexico could afford vanilla beans to make their own extracts. Things haven’t changed since then. So yes, Molina is imitation vanilla and we don’t know what the actual ingredients are as no one monitors label laws on vanilla.

  4. I only place I can find real vanilla, in Mexico, is Ah Cocoa. They didn’t have any to sell last year and I don’t see it on their site this year either. I’m sure all the vanilla sold in gift shops and the airport is also imitation.

    1. Carol, the reason you can’t find pure vanilla in Mexico is because the industry is just about dead. Makes me very sad as I did research there for so many years. Climate change is the primary reason. Go back to the comments where you wrote your question and read the one above yours for specifics on what is going on in the Mexican industry and it will explain why you can’t find pure vanilla.

  5. When I was in Mexico last, I bought Mexican Vanilla Totonac. It says Pure Vanilla in capital letters and says “Vanilla beans inside. The ingredients list only vanailla beans extracted i n water and alcohol. I was just gifted a bottle called Reyna Gourmet Vainilla (spelled like that) Says it’s organically grown and gluten freed. Doesnot contain courmarin. Ingredients say prime vanilla beans, cane alcohol, purified water and natural extra pure vanillin. What do you think? Sounds bad to me.

    1. Arlene and those of you who might read this post, the Mexican vanilla industry is almost completely dead. Last winter vanilla beans sold for between $800 and $1000 a kilo. It takes nearly two kilos to make a gallon of vanilla extract. At $800 a kilo, the bottles of vanilla you buy in Mexico would need to cost about $500 or more a gallon. Think about how much money you spent on the bottles of so-called vanilla you purchased in Mexico. did you pay $60 or more for a 4 ounce bottle?? It’s ALL IMITATION VANILLA! This year’s vanilla crop in Mexico was destroyed by heat. The beans fell from the vines. However, the imitation industry has been alive and well since 1892. PLEASE NOTE: the money you spend on imitation extracts (and because there are no label laws for imitation vanilla in Mexico, they can put anything they want on the labels), could be better spent on a good meal or on some of the many beautiful handcrafts for which Mexico is famous. JUST DON’T BOTHER BUYING MEXICAN VANILLA AS WE DON’T KNOW WHAT IS ACTUALLY IN THE BOTTLE OTHER THAN CHEMICALS!!

    1. Nightengale58, without attempting to sound “smart,” I did research in the center of the Mexican vanilla industry over a 13 year period. I’ve been involved in the vanilla industry since 1985. The best resource available about vanilla’s history from Mesoamerica to 2004 is my book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the Worlds Favorite Flavor and Fragrance. This is considered the authoritative book on vanilla. I hope this will be of assistance in finding authoritative references for you. Additionally, if you click on the information on the banner at the top of the page of my site, https://www.vanillaqueen.com you will find a lot of information relevant to vanilla.

  6. Costco sells a bottle of vanilla for $35. Am assuming it’s real vanilla. We bought a couple bottles in Cozumel Las February. After reading this article I will throw them away.

  7. I bought vanilla beans in Hawaii and have been making my own with their instructions. The vanilla is tasty and so far is great in my baking. The color is not dark brown, and can still be looked through. Is this normal?

    1. Barbara, The vanilla is very likely right-on-target. Vanilla is not naturally dark brown. It is varying shades of amber. It comes closer dark brown when caramel color is added, which is used to darken the extract and add more sweetening. Enjoy your homemade vanilla and the memories of your trip! Patricia

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