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Is Real Vanilla Always Better Than Imitation Vanilla?

There are two types of vanilla out in the world today. Imitation vanilla, which is made from artificial chemical compounds, and real vanilla, which is made from the ground up pods of an orchid plant called Vanilla planifolia. So when you want to bake with a delicious vanilla taste, do you go for imitation or real?

Vainilla planifolia is native to Central America and production is quite labor-intensive. The coming years will see major ecological changes that might put natural vanillas at risk of extinction. Artificial vanillas are not produced in a sustainable way and they use chemicals that have been found to cause cancer in lab rats at high doses. About 80% of vanillas are made from imitation vanillas and 20% from natural vanillas.(1)

The Difference Between Artificial and Real Vanilla

So, are artificial vanillas better than real ones? It’s hard to say that they are. There have been studies done in the past decade comparing real and artificial vanillas, but there is not one clear winner. Below is a summary of the results of some of these studies:

4 different synthetic vanillas were compared to 4 different natural vanillas. They tasted nearly identical.(2) A 9 year study found that there was no difference in the sweetness or smell between real and artificial vanillas (3). In other words, both artificial and natural vanillas were indistinguishable by taste.

A study done in 2007 (4) looked at the concentration of vanillin in different vanilla products. They found that chemical-grade vanillins are not necessarily more pure than organic-grade vanillins, but they are more likely to be chemical contaminants. Depending on the brand, sometimes the artificial vanilla could have a chemical residue as high as 0.9%. One advantage of natural vanilla from the study is that it had no detectable residue of chemicals.

In a different study done in 1982, natural and synthetic vanillas were compared for their effects on the growth and bacteria levels in cow rumens. The results showed no difference between the two types of vanilla. However, this was just a small study done with only 15 cows, so it’s not very conclusive.(5)

Real vanilla is made up of many different compounds that give the smell, taste and color we love about it. The most well-known compound in real vanilla is called vanillin, which makes up around 50% of all compounds found in real vanilla beans. However, vanillin doesn’t taste much like vanilla at all. It is very bitter and gives a burnt flavor to things. Of the 55 different compounds in real vanilla, the compound that has the most impact on flavor is called eugenol.(6) Eugenol can also be found in cinnamon, laurel and ginger.

Artificial vanillas are made of artificial chemical compounds which are usually made from petrochemicals like benzene. The main complaint that people have about artificial vanillas is that they don’t always taste and smell as good as natural ones do. They usually contain more than one synthetic chemical used to replicate the flavor of real vanilla and these chemicals can cause side effects such as headaches and skin irritation.

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So, is real vanilla better than imitation vanilla? It’s hard to say one way or the other. Each type has their own pros and cons. Natural vanillas are usually naturally grown in farmed plantations. They are also more expensive and not necessarily any healthier for you than artificial vanillas. Natural vanillas also have more compounds that make up the flavor of vanilla and some of these compounds have antimicrobial effects, which are good for your health.(7)

However, natural vanilla has been known to cause a lot of allergic reactions in people due to the presence of certain compounds found in natural vanilla extract like eugenol. Artificial vanillas are synthetic and do not contain any extra chemicals and they don’t contain any natural compounds that may cause an allergic reaction. So, what kind of vanilla should you buy? The type you want to buy really depends on your own individual preferences.

The Difference Between High-Quality and Low-Quality Vanilla

So, how can you tell if your vanilla is of high quality or low quality? There is no one simple answer to this question. Some companies will try to trick customers into thinking that their vanillas are of high quality when they are not, while other companies will sell very poor quality products under the guise of them being good.

Before I went to actual cooking school, I went to the school of Martha Stewart. (Disclaimer: That’s not an actual school.) From my couch, I learned that when baking it was crucial to always use the finest ingredients, the best vanilla extract I could find, and if at all possible, freshly laid eggs from Martha’s own farm. I’m still working on securing that last one.

But in her book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, culinary historian Sarah Lohman makes the argument that there are times when imitation vanilla extract is actually preferable to pure. “I believe there is a time and place to use every version of vanilla in your kitchen: Bean, natural extract, and imitation extract,” she writes. Vanillin is the naturally occurring chemical compound that we recognize as the primary aroma and taste of vanilla. And although real vanilla extract is made up of vanillin (plus lesser compounds that add to its varying levels of complexity), sometimes the vanillin is all you need to spark that familiar flavor.

To prove her point, Lohman conducted a taste test at the Brooklyn Brainery, a hub for recreational adult classes and workshops. She baked two sets of cookies, one with real vanilla extract and one with imitation. The audience preferred the imitation cookies 2:1. The reason, Lohman says, is that all the little compounds that make up that complex natural vanilla flavor can’t survive high-heat cooking, and so add little to cookies—which cook to an internal temperature of about 300°F. Using imitation vanilla extract, a product made of synthetic vanillin, results in a cookie with more pronounced flavor.

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Needless to say, the Epi Test Kitchen was still dubious. So we conducted our own blind taste test. Our test kitchen assistant, Kat Boytsova, baked two batches of our All-in-One Sugar Cookies: one with Spice Supreme Imitation Vanilla Extract and the other with Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract (the real deal). My colleague Kat Sacks, a former restaurant pastry cook, and I both picked Batch B as the favorite. The remaining tasters could detect no difference in sight, smell, or taste between the two batches. So what was Batch B? Imitation. Cue the dramatic shocked montage.

Which is not to say that we should all toss our $40 stash of vanilla beans. Lohman recommends using vanilla beans for puddings and custards, which cook to a much lower temperature. She also cites a similar test from America’s Test Kitchen in which imitation vanilla tied with natural vanilla in a cake bake-off, but prefers using real vanilla extract for her own cakes. As for Lohman’s cookies, however—and ours—they will never be the same. They’ll be better. Cheaper, too. And that’s a good thing.

Does clear vanilla extract taste different?

To better understand the difference in quality between FDA-approved vanilla extracts, we recently conducted a blind taste test using two different products. The results were inconclusive. [Read the full article online now.]

John Kiffmeyer, Chief Operating Officer of Nielsen-Massey Corporation and author of Vanilla: The History, Lore, and Legacy of the World’s Most Versatile Flavor Ingredient explains: “Because many other factors affect the result of a vanilla extract including strain, soil conditions, curing time and humidity levels, the differences in aroma between one method of extraction and another may be explained more by differences in processing than by differences in growing methods.

Can you substitute clear vanilla extract?

The chemical compound that gives the clear liquid its color is vanillin. However, because it’s a natural substance, it has a low concentration of vanillin in comparison to the famous vanilla extract derived from it. If you’re looking to make a world-class dessert and cannot afford vanilla beans, go ahead and substitute clear extract for your complicated recipe requiring real vanilla extract. The taste won’t suffer; in fact, your dish might be even better with the substitute because of its special properties—which are different from those of real vanilla extract—in which case you can speak of the “vanilla essence.”

What happens when an expensive ingredient goes bad?

The souring agent in cheap vanilla extract is sometimes wood alcohol. As the wood alcohol ages and interacts with the other ingredients in cheap vanilla extract, it can become toxic to humans. If you suspect your cheap vanilla extract has gone bad, look for a label that says “food-grade” or “food-safe” on the bottle.

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Is clear vanilla extract toxic?

Yes! This is due to the fact that cheap vanilla beans are often used as growth media in bacteria grown to produce artificial vanilla flavorings. The bacteria produce formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals. According to a 2000 FDA report, clear extracts have been found to be highly irritating when ingested. Also, in 1990, a woman bitten by her neighbor’s dog died while he was being treated at a hospital for rabies.

Is clear vanilla extract good?

Curious about the difference between clear vanilla extract and the extract made from whole vanilla beans? To find out, we asked food scientist Harold McGee to analyze a clear extract and compare it to pure vanilla extract. First, he put a teaspoon of each one in distilled water and heated them. Clear vanilla extract has higher levels of vanillin than pure vanilla extract, but when heated, both types of extracts turned into nothing more than vanillin itself.

What does “natural” mean?

According to the FDA, it means just that: natural (there are no artificial colors, artificial flavors or synthetic substances). But some “natural” extracts use an alcohol-based process that includes wood chips soaked in natural flecks of vanillin. To ensure that wood chips are not used in your vanilla extract, look for the word “vanilla” on the label. [Want to know more? Read our guide to 5 Affordable Vanilla Extracts]

What does “imitation” mean?

It means synthetic and/or extracted from coal tar. I’m not sure about you, but when I think of imitation anything, I imagine a knockoff handbag that breaks open in my bag on the bus ride home.

What does “imitation vanilla extract” mean?

It’s vanilla extract made from synthetic vanillin, which comes from coal tar. This is the non-real food version of vanilla. From an environmental standpoint, it’s good to use imitation vanilla extract (if you use it) because it takes less energy and fewer resources to create a bottle of imitation vanilla than a bottle of the real thing. It’s also cheaper. If you look at “pure” as opposed to “natural,” this is how you can tell whether your vanilla is pure or fake: pure means that not only do they use natural ingredients to make the product, but they also use only natural ingredients in its manufacture (no coal tar).

It’s good to use imitation vanilla extract if you’re on a tight budget. It’s good to use pure vanilla extract if you want the real thing, like not using imitation when you can trust yourself not to dump it in the trash before your guests arrive and they come over to play. For those of us who want food companies to stop making artificial vanilla flavorings, it’s still a matter of “when.” But at least we can clean our carpets without worrying about how toxic homemade vanilla extract is. Everything above is correct according to research done by Harold McGee, Food Science Consultant for the New York Times.

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