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What’s The Difference Between Imitation And Pure Vanilla?

Have you ever stared at the vanilla extracts on the store shelves and wondered which  is the best vanilla extract to buy? In some respects, choosing a vanilla extract is like selecting a fine wine. How do you know which one to buy?

Read on for an insider’s view of vanilla extract, how to choose what’s best for you and why high-quality vanilla makes a world of difference in flavor.

The best quality vanilla extracts come with a price

The simple answer for what is the best vanilla extract often boils down to price. Good vanilla is not cheap. And because it is so pricey (it’s the world’s most labor-intensive crop), customers are often put off by sticker-shock.

Most supermarket vanilla extracts are mediocre

Supermarkets try their best to buy name brand extracts that are affordable but they may not necessarily be the best extracts. With some exceptions, most supermarket vanilla extracts — both brand name and store brands — while they are pure vanilla, are often mediocre quality in comparison to the really fine quality extracts that are available elsewhere. This is especially true in the big-box stores where bulk vanilla is fairly inexpensive.

The takeaway here is if you really want the best vanilla, you will have to get over sticker shock. And your best bet for finding it is to shop at a specialty food store or online from a reputable source. Yes, you will pay a little more, but you will be getting more! You really will notice a difference in the flavor in your foods and baked goods!

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.

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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.

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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.

Is there real clear vanilla extract?

For years there has been talk of a clear vanilla extract that is pure and can be aged, but it has never been available commercially.  It is made by steeping vanilla beans in clear alcohol and letting them dry out.  The seeds and fiber are removed after the alcohol has evaporated.  One would probably need to live at a higher altitude to simulate the hot, humid environment where vanilla grows naturally in order for it to age properly.

Over time the alcohol evaporates, leaving behind real vanilla extract (made from a small amount of artificial vanillin).  This is the real deal! It can age, just like natural vanilla, and it is clear or almost clear.  If a company were to offer clear extract to the general public it would probably be too expensive for most people, but it is a real possibility.

What about those green bottles with yellow flecks?  Coffee beans are roasted in a coffee bean grinder. When the beans are ground, they release their oils and aromas into the room. These aroma molecules combine with those from the vanilla beans to create vanillin in the oil created in the coffee ground. The caffé vanillin can then react with other aromatic chemicals to form what we call artificial vanillas (coumarin).

Is clear vanilla the same as vanilla extract?

Clear vanilla is called “pure vanilla extract” in the States and Canada. It isn’t really clear, but it has no cloudy sediment.

In the US, clear vanilla doesn’t contain any alcohol. In Canada, it’s called “pure vanilla extract”, and contains 2-10% alcohol.

My Mexican friends say they use clear vanilla in Mexico too; it seems to be a bit like the Mexican version of Holland’s heated rum sauce (which has a strong alcohol smell, but turns from dark brown to caramel color and no flavor).  I have never heard of clear vanilla extract being available for sale in Mexico or anywhere else for that matter.

Is clear vanilla extract good?

Clear vanilla extract has no vanilla bean in it, but it is a good tasting vanilla flavoring.  There is no alcohol in it so the flavoring is not as strong as regular extract.  If you are using a recipe that calls for clear or imitation, always reduce the amount of flavoring to taste.

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It’s also possible to make your own clear vanilla extract. Just follow these simple instructions:

Put two pods of whole vanilla beans (or two ounces of pure, natural vanilla beans) into a jar with one to two cups of 100 proof (50%) vodka.  A plastic bottle that holds one liter or more works well.

Where can I buy clear vanilla extract?

Clear vanilla extract is available in most liquor stores.  You will find it next to the regular vanilla extract.  Look for pure, natural extracts with only two ingredients: vodka (and perhaps water). These are not imitation! Select a clear or golden color as they indicate more natural vanillin flavor (and fewer additives.) These bottles are usually smaller than regular extracts because they are concentrated. I buy small .5 oz bottles so it’s easy to use fresh beans and avoid oxidation.

What vanilla extract is clear?

Clear vanilla extract, is made by steeping whole vanilla beans in clear alcohol.  This is old fashioned and can be hard to find.  It is also very expensive !!!

I found some on-line that sell this extract for $80 for 16 oz (including shipping), or about the same price as the artificial stuff. The ones I bought were unopened and had no date on them, so I can’t confirm whether they’re still good or not, but it sounds expensive to me. If you see any posted online, let me know where you got it! 🙂

How can I tell I have fake vanilla?

Fake vanillas smell like chemicals and may taste soapy. If you taste it, you will really know the difference. They are made from one of the following chemicals:

Imitation vanilla extract = vanillin (synthetic) = ethylvanillin (synthetic) = propylene glycol + vanillin (an alcohol).  This is what I buy in Mexico, and it’s not too bad. It’s like when they make strawberry (or any strawberry flavor) ice cream; they don’t use real strawberries, but the smell and flavor come pretty close.  Artificial vanilla has a longer shelf life than true vanilla extract, but as it ages, it becomes bitter and nasty.

What is clear vanilla extract made of?

Clear vanilla extract is made from a small amount of artificial vanillin and a lot of vodka. It isn’t made from real vanilla beans.  Many artificial vanilla extracts are made with propylene glycol (which is toxic).  To make sure your clear vanilla extract doesn’t contain this, look for the words “vegan” or “organic” on the label as these products don’t contain propylene glycol.

I hope this clears up the confusion with clear vanilla extract. If a company were to offer clear extract to the general public it would probably be too expensive for most people, but it is a real possibility. It tastes pretty good, so I might try it myself. Clear vanilla extract is made from a small amount of artificial vanillin and a lot of vodka.   Many artificial vanilla extracts are made with propylene glycol (which is toxic).

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