There's a reason why pure vanilla is so much more expensive than imitation.
Vanilla Bean Paste
Credit: Lennart Weibull

Vanilla is a popular and powerhouse spice. It's the prominent flavor in ice cream and crème brûlée and enhances other ingredients in both sweet and savory applications. It is hand-harvested in select locations just 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator; and because of this labor-intensive process, the price of a four-ounce bottle of pure vanilla extract can cost upwards of $30. So, what's the difference between an inexpensive bottle of vanilla extract versus a pricier one? And what's the deal with imitation vanilla extract? To understand what really makes pure vanilla so much better than the imitation variety, we turned to Matt Nielsen, a third-generation co-owner of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas.

What Is Pure Vanilla Extract?

When shopping for this ingredient, the first thing you should look for is that it is called pure vanilla extract. According to Nielsen, pure vanilla extract is highly regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. "To be classified as a pure vanilla extract, it has to be produced exclusively from cured vanilla beans and that law mandates that per gallon of vanilla extract, it must contain a minimum of 13.5 ounces of vanilla beans in a solution of no less than 35 percent alcohol," he explains. However, there are varying degrees of quality even among bottles of pure vanilla extract. When comparing a lower-priced bottle of pure vanilla extract to a more expensive one, look for other notable claims and certifications such as all-natural, allergen-free, certified Kosher, gluten-free, and Non-GMO Project Verified. These indicate that the company has taken the time to distinguish their product, which means that it's likely higher quality.

The next thing to look for when purchasing vanilla extract is where the beans come from. Nielsen recommends choosing single-origin vanilla, which means that all of the beans were harvested from the same location (generally Mexico, Madagascar, Uganda, Indonesia, or Tahiti). Otherwise, the producer could use beans from a variety of locations, which degrades the quality and flavor of the vanilla. The most popular and widely-available is Madagascar vanilla extract, though try a few to discover which you like the best. Finally, try to determine if the vanilla extract was produced with cold or hot extraction. According to Nielsen, there are over 400 different flavor compounds that make up the vanilla flavor; the best way to make sure that all of those flavor compounds make it into a bottle for consumers is through cold extraction, which gently recirculates water and alcohol through vanilla beans and retains those flavor compounds. Many vanilla producers use heat extraction because the process can be completed in a matter of days versus weeks, but the flavor is much shallower.

What Is Imitation Vanilla Extract?

Remember those 400 flavor compounds we just mentioned? The key compound is called natural vanillin, which is an organic compound found in vanilla beans and other plant life. It's natural… until it's not. Companies that produce imitation vanilla extract have been able to artificially simulate the taste of vanilla in a lab and create a much cheaper product. "It is chemically produced to mimic that taste and it really lacks the complex characteristics that a pure vanilla extract will have," says Nielsen.

To create imitation vanilla, artificial vanillin is mixed with propylene glycol, glycerin, or water, preservatives, and brown food coloring. Currently, there are no United States federal regulations that govern the production of artificial vanillin, as there are for pure vanilla extract. "Ultimately, while artificial vanillin is generally recognized as a safe end-product, there is no standard for ingredients or processing and it is produced from a combination of chemicals, which may not be desirable to health-conscious consumers," Nielsen explains.


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