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Gluten Confusion: Vanilla Extract

Medical experts warn that people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease should avoid gluten-based products, because cross-contamination occurs in some cases of distillation. These distillations are used to create both alcohol and pure vanilla extract, and there is also the potential for a cross-reaction between distilled vanilla extracts and yeast pasteurized milk (usually use in cheeses).

Although it’s not common, some celiacs have been known to experience an adverse reaction after drinking alcohol while using a vanilla extract product made with grains. That said, many people who don’t fall into either category can still consume foods containing these additives without risk.

Why use cornstarch in vanilla extract? Cornstarch is a cheap alternative to grain alcohol. Alcohol is preferred because it’s health-promoting, and it doesn’t impart any unwanted flavors or texture. Cornstarch isn’t exactly a bad thing, though; it’s still useful as flavoring in many things — including cosmetics, vitamins, and baked goods.

Cornstarch is also a good thickener because it doesn’t break down at high temperatures or when exposed to open air. While cornflour (or cornmeal) can be used as a substitute for cornstarch but won’t have quite the same thickness, its natural cellulose fibers won’t allow proper set-up of the paste (as opposed to starch).

Broth made from beef, chicken, pork, and shellfish is safe for people with coeliac disease because these meats are tested for gluten contamination on a regular basis. Vegetables like asparagus and spinach can also be eaten as long as the cook doesn’t use their leaves in soups or sauces.

It’s also not a good idea to eat canned food straight from the can because of possible cross-contamination from the sealant used to contain the contents. However, many people find canned soup to be just as delicious at room temperature or heated up the next day, so they’ll go through it quickly.

Most traditional vanilla extracts found in food stores are alcohol-based. They are made from alcohol (usually vodka) combined with vanilla beans, sugar, and other flavors. Many people opt for the high-quality ones because they contain a small amount of real vanilla bean, which gives more intense flavor than the cheap imitation products.

The main problem with this is that these extracts can contain gluten from the vodka, so some celiacs have been known to experience an adverse reaction after drinking alcohol while using a vanilla extract product made from actual extract, beans, and other natural ingredients. That said, many people who don’t fall into either category can still consume foods containing these additives without risk.

Vanilla is a popular flavoring for food and beverages. While most people think of “vanilla” as the extract, it’s actually the seed pod from an orchid species known as vanilla planifolia. To make vanilla extract, the beans are roasted and then placed in a bag with alcohol (usually high-quality vodka or brandy), which will absorb the flavor molecules entering through pores on the surface.

When you buy vanilla extract, you’re getting soaked seeds that have been steeped in alcohol for at least several months. Vanilla extracts should be stored away from sunlight, heat and humidity; ideally at room temperature, or in a cool dark place like a cupboard.

Since vanilla extract is made from alcohol – which is usually made from grain, the question of whether the extract is gluten free routinely comes up. The alcohols distillation process removes almost all traces of gluten, making it well below the 20ppm which qualifies as being labeled gluten free.

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The alcohols distillation process removes almost all traces of gluten, making it safe to consume. Having said that, there are some people who are highly sensitive, and can still react to gluten levels well below the 20ppm. For those people, there are several alcohol brands on the market now that use corn, potato, or sugar cane instead of grains to produce their products. For more information on grain free alcohol read: What Types of Alcoholic Drinks Are Gluten Free?

Next to saffron, pure vanilla is the most expensive spice in the world. Vanilla beans are the fruit from an orchid grown in tropical climates like Madagascar, Mexico and Tahiti, and are harvested under only optimal natural environmental conditions. Growing the beans is extremely labor intensive as each flower is hand-pollinated and, once the beans are ripe, are then hand-picked.

There are two types of vanilla extract, pure and imitation (including clear varieties). There is also a third – which is labeled vanilla flavoring and is a blend of pure and imitation. But for the purpose of this article, I will include those extracts in the imitation category.

Imitation vanilla has a strong flavor with a very bitter aftertaste. This is due to the extracts they are really made from –wood pulp or coal! Pure vanilla, which contains the flavor compound vanillin, is smooth and has an intensely robust flavor.

Pure vanilla extract is produced by steeping vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution for several months. The longer it steeps, the fuller the flavor and less bitter the aftertaste.  The best extracts are left to mature for several years.

Imitation vanilla extract is made from wood pulp or coal tar

To make a cheaper pure vanilla extract, manufacturers can avoid this long maturation by adding a sweetener like corn syrup or sugar. The sweetener works to stabilize the mixture quicker and adds a boost to its aromatic bouquet.

Yes… but if you do a lot of baking and go through a lot of extract, it can start to get very expensive. If this is the case, then only use pure vanilla extract in recipes that are uncooked – like in cold drinks, ice creams, whipping cream, or other cold type desserts – where the bold and rich flavor of the extract can be detected. For baked goods, use a cheaper type of vanilla extract (be it artificial or a blend), since heating will cause some of its alcohol to evaporate – along with some of the vanilla flavor.

An alternative to buying vanilla extract is to make your own. Click here (Homemade Vanilla Extract) to learn how to make it, and if it’s worth it. To save money, use pure extract in uncooked recipes and imitation for baked or hot dishes/drinks.

Vanilla beans can last up to year if stored in an air-tight container in a cool, dark location. The glass vial they are sold in is the perfect storage container.  They should not be refrigerated as it drys the pods out – you want them to maintain their soft pliable texture.

If you see tiny iridescent crystals form on the pod, like a frost, that is actually a sign of a great quality bean. Those crystals are the vanillin that is oozing out. Like a fine wine, where the beans are grown lend delicate notes to their flavor.

Madagascar – Full-bodied flavor with a hint of tobacco (because these beans have the highest vanillin content, they are used in most commercial extracts)

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Mexico – Smooth and creamy, with a spicy and woody fragrance

Tahiti – Has a subtle floral scent, with a hint of chocolate-cherry flavor, or licorice

Bourbon –  Fruity scents of fig, papaya, persimmon and cherries

West India – Dark rummy scent, hints of cherries with a subtle woodsy scent

Indonesia – Aromas of prunes and cinnamon

Tonga – Hints of cherries

Papua New Guinea – Subtle notes of chocolate and red wine define this vanilla

Is all pure vanilla extract gluten free?

Since vanilla extract is made from alcohol, which is usually made from grain, the question of whether the extract is gluten free routinely comes up. The alcohols distillation process removes almost all traces of gluten, making it well below the 20ppm which qualifies as being labeled gluten free.

The best vanilla bean brands:

Like coffee and chocolate, vanilla beans are one of those things that has been a connoisseurs item for quite some time now. Since the vanilla bean is such a precious item, the best vanilla beans are very expensive indeed.

Here is our list of some of the best brands in the world on the market at this time. When you are looking for a fine brand, look for one that has been hand picked from a farmers market or plantation. These beans are used in high quality extracts and make all the difference when it comes to good tasting chocolate and confections.

Since pure vanilla extract is made from alcohol (which is usually made from grain), there is some debate about whether or not it’s gluten free.

Which brands of vanilla extract are gluten free?

To be labeled gluten-free, the ingredients list must be clearly marked “gluten-free” on the front label.

In addition, foods that contain soybeans or products produced with soybeans must also state on their bottle or label if they are processed in a facility that also processes wheat, oats, barley and rye.

There are two types of vanilla extract: pure and imitation (including clear varieties). There is also a third – which is labeled vanilla flavoring and is a blend of pure and imitation. But for the purpose of this article, I will include those extracts in the imitation category.

Can people with celiac have vanilla extract?

People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity will have to be careful when purchasing vanilla extract. Many brands of pure vanilla extract contain gluten.

Pure vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution for several months. The longer it steeps, the fuller the flavor and less bitter the aftertaste. The best extracts are left to mature for several years.

Can people with a gluten allergy have imitation (clear) vanilla extract?

According to current FDA labeling regulations, imitation flavor extracts derived from grains that contain gluten must be labeled “imitation. See the following link.

 

What is the difference between vanilla flavoring and vanilla extract?

Vanilla Flavors & Extracts contain vanillin, which gives them a sweet aroma and appeal, but does not have the same flavor that vanilla beans do. Vanilla Extracts are made from actual beans, which give them a more intense flavor and aroma. If a product contains both flavors and extract, it will say “flavor and extract” on the label. In some cases, these extracts may be made from seeds or bean pods, while others may be made from artificial or natural extracts. Many of these extracts come in two forms: clear and dark.

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What is imitation vanilla made of? What are artificial flavorings?

Imitation Vanilla Extract is made using synthetic vanillin and contains no alcohol, while artificial flavorings are produced artificially in a lab and contain no alcohol. These products do not add calories or sugar to a recipe, but they do add sodium.

Is pure vanilla extract the same as vanilla extract?

Vanilla extract is made by extracting raw vanilla beans in alcohol. Vanilla extract contains no alcohol; and vanillin (the chemical responsible for the flavor of vanilla) is added.

Vanilla Extracts are made using natural vanillin, which gives them a sweeter, deeper flavor and aroma than pure vanilla extracts because they contain an alcohol base. This type of extract would not be suitable for sugar reduction recipes, or recipes where you just want a good sweet fragrance to enhance the recipe like cakes and fillings.

Which brand is best? Is it worth it? How much should I buy?

Choosing the right brand of pure vanilla extract is crucial. If the flavor is too weak, it won’t do your baked goods justice. And if it’s too strong, the end result will be overwhelming.

The best way to choose a brand is by using trial and error. Start by using a recipe that you’re familiar with and then add in 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Taste that, then add another 1/4 teaspoon until you achieve the desired flavor. It’s best to use one brand for all purposes so you know how much is necessary when substituting in a new recipe. So, once you’ve found your go-to brand of extract, try out some vanilla beans (or a bean variety) which will have a stronger flavor and aroma than extract alone.

What’s the difference between imitation vanilla and real vanilla?

Vanilla extract, in addition to vanillin, contains sucrose and other ingredients, such as glycerin. In fact, vanilla beans are cut open and impregnated with doctored vanillin and sucrose. This is why extracts tend to be sweeter than extract alone; the sugar balances the tartness of the vanillin.

When it comes to vanilla beans, however, there’s only one way to find out whether real or imitation is used: through trial and error. And it’s not a simple task. It’s true that a pure vanilla bean has a rich, earthy taste which is used in the best recipes and makes them stand out. But it’s also true that imitation vanilla is used in many recipes where you won’t really even notice.

There are many brands of pure vanilla extract on the market. Most extracts contain 35-40% alcohol by volume, but some contain less than 20%. Those with more alcohol will have more flavor and aroma, while those low in alcohol will have a weaker flavor and aroma.

As far as actual beans go, most brands contain natural vanillin derived from the beans’ sapwood, rather than from synthetic materials or wood pulp; the best of these are free of artificial ingredients altogether.

Since there are no labeling guidelines for ‘vanilla extract,’ it’s best to be cautious and carefully select the brand of vanilla you purchase. Vanilla can be pricey, so if you don’t bake that often, it’s better to purchase beans instead.

If a recipe calls for vanilla extract, this means that it already contains sugar and/or alcohol, so I would recommend substituting either coconut or maple syrup (depending on taste), or some other non-alcoholic liquid sweetener.

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