Gluten Confusion: Vanilla Extract

Gluten free diets have been growing in popularity for a long time now, and many people are feeling better as a result of cutting gluten from their diets. But what about those delicious treats?

Vanilla extract is a traditional cooking ingredient that may be surprising to discover is made from one of the most popular foods that gluten-free followers avoid: vanilla beans! In this blog post, we’ll explore the history and production of vanilla extract, as well as whether or not it contains gluten. Let’s get started!

In 16th century Mexico, Spanish conquistadors discovered the flavorful pods of wild vanilla growing near an indigenous village called Totontepec. When the Spaniards first saw the unusual flowers, they thought they were seeing a rare kind of flower, and they named it “vanilla”. After their conquest of Mexico, vanilla became an integral part of the Spanish diet, though other spices like cumin and black pepper were more popular.

By the 17th century, vanilla was well-established as a very popular spice in Europe. Vanilla still remained primarily a flavoring for desserts and beverages in early English colonists’ diets. Eventually vanilla became firmly ensconced as one of America’s favorite spices once it reached New World shores as well.

The primary active ingredient in vanilla extract is vanillin, produced by steeping whole cloves in wine or vinegar to release their flavor and aroma. The resultant liquid is then usually heated, sometimes also with vanillin added to intensify the flavor.

Since vanilla extract is frequently made from alcohol, no one would assume that it is gluten free. But interestingly, alcohol and gluten are produced in different parts of the vanilla bean (the seed pod), so no gluten contamination can occur. In addition, many brands of vanilla extract are labeled as “vanilla flavoring” instead of “vanilla extract”, in an effort to assure the public that there is no actual vanilla beans in the product.

If you want to make your own gluten-free vanilla extract at home, simply purchase gluten-free vodka or rum (or make your own!). Then, select a high-quality vanilla bean and place it in a jar with 75% alcohol. Allow the beans to infuse for several weeks. Vanilla extract will remain good for a year or more when stored in the refrigerator.

Recently I’ve been head-deep in something I’m calling the “Vanilla Extract Internet Swirl.” It sounds like this:

Is vanilla extract gluten free? Some products label it gluten free. No, it has alcohol. No, it has caramel color. Well, those things don’t matter. Yes, they do. No, they don’t.

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Ugh. So much confusion. Why? Because we live in a beautiful, wonderful world that we humans can’t begin to understand. But as our technology improves, so does our comprehension—twenty years ago, scientists weren’t able to perform tests with the same level of nuance that they are today. Today, we can measure the parts per million of products like distilled grain alcohol and we know for a fact that all distilled alcohols are gluten free (unless, of course, they have questionable flavorings added in afterwards).

So, what’s the deal with vanilla extract? First of all, let’s break down what we’re talking about: vanilla extract, imitation vanilla and vanilla flavoring.

Pure vanilla extract is a richly fragrant liquid with a clear, (not syrupy) dark amber color. The FDA specifies that it contains 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction, as well as a mixture of 35% alcohol and 65% water. It is also available in different strengths—like double and triple—and vanilla essence, so potent that only one or two drops are needed.

Imitation vanilla is composed of artificial flavorings, some of which can sound sort of scary: clove oil, pine bark, coal tar, bran, and paper-industry by-products. Yum. It is more harsh and can have a bitter aftertaste, although tasters often find little difference between pure and imitation vanilla in baked goods.

Vanilla flavoring is a blend of pure and imitation vanilla.

Okay cool. So, are any of these gluten free?

Yes. Pure vanilla extract is gluten free, period. It’s just vanilla, distilled alcohol and water. Imitation vanilla and vanilla flavoring are likely gluten free also, but there isn’t the same level of certainty that there is with pure extract.

Why? Because there is another swirl: the “caramel color internet swirl.” Celiac.com says that caramel color made in the United States is most likely gluten free, but that the stuff can sometimes contain malt syrup (usually from barley), starches from wheat, and even lactose (hey dairy allergy). So imitation vanilla syrup is probably fine, but it isn’t guaranteed unless promised by the manufacturer.

Looking for vanilla options? You could buy pure (it’s a little more pricey, but if you’re adding it to unbaked recipes like smoothies and yogurt you’ll want pure for sure). You could make your own (it takes some time, but we’re going to try it). Or you could buy safe imitations (like McCormick Premium Imitation Vanilla Extract).

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What do you do? Have you made your own vanilla extract before? Are there other imitation brands you use safely?

Can people with celiac have vanilla extract?

Yes, they can have vanilla extract.

Can gluten-free products labeled as “vanilla flavoring” be safely consumed with gluten? Or gluten containing products that contain “vanilla flavoring”? Ugh. Well, here again, it all depends on where the product is made.

So, why does it matter?

Well, because some manufacturers don’t actually use real vanilla in their food and beverage products—instead, they use imitation vanilla flavoring or plain alcohol to mask the taste of other ingredients that may contain gluten (like wheat and soy).

While pure vanilla extract is gluten free, other imitation vanilla products are not. You can use them in recipes that don’t contain gluten, but to be safe, you’ll want to make sure the ingredients list states that no gluten was used. Some manufacturers do state on the ingredient label if the flavoring contains gluten. But if your recipe calls for pure vanilla extract (or other imitation flavoring), then you can feel safe in using it and you can rest assured that it’s gluten-free.

Can you find pure vanilla extract in the large grocery stores?

Yes, Mccormick Pure Vanilla Extract can be found in the baking aisle of large grocery stores like Whole Foods and Safeway.

How much vanilla extract do you use per cup?

1/4 tsp. per cup of liquid. Top ↑ Ingredients for this recipe: … 1/4 tsp. McCormick (Pure) Vanilla Extract • 1/4 cup-Heavy Cream • 6 Tbs-Unsalted Butter, Softened It appears that this recipe is a derivative work not written by me, and therefore should be used at your own risk (at least it was when I used it myself).

How much McCormick (Pure) Vanilla Extract is used in a batch of brownies?

You can use 1/4 tsp. per cup of liquid. Top ↑ Ingredients for this recipe: … 1/4 tsp. McCormick (Pure) Vanilla Extract • 1/2 cup-Buttermilk • 6 Tbs-Unsalted Butter, Softened It appears that this recipe is a derivative work not written by me, and therefore should be used at your own risk (at least it was when I used it myself).

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Is vanilla extract bad for you?

No. Vanilla extract is a natural product derived from the vanilla bean. Vanilla is one of the richest sources of phenolic acids, flavonoids and vanillin (the primary type of flavoring in vanilla products) found in nature.

Phenolic acids are antioxidants that help protect cells against damage caused by oxygen-free radicals. In addition, phenolic acids can protect against air pollutants and even some carcinogens, such as benzene and thioacetamide (a potent cancer-causing agent). Flavonoids are plant compounds that act as antimicrobial agents to inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria that can cause spoilage. Flavonoids also help reduce inflammation in the body.

What’s the difference between vanilla and vanilla extract?

There’s a big difference between vanilla and vanilla extract. Vanilla (or vanillin) is the primary flavoring derived from the pod of the tropical orchid seedpod of Tahitian, Hawaiian, Mexican and Madagascar origin. In its purest form, it has a slight green hue. This natural substance can be used to enhance the taste of many foods and beverages (both sweet and savory), but since it is an expensive ingredient, most industrially prepared vanilla products use imitation or artificial vanilla flavoring to enhance the taste of a product without using any actual vanilla extract.

Imitation or artificial vanilla flavorings are also used in baked goods as well as items such as ice cream and yogurt. In fact, imitation vanilla can be found in just about everything from baked goods to custards such as ice cream and yogurt (read more about imitation vanilla and its gluten-free ingredients here). The problem with artificial ingredients is that they often contain high-fructose corn syrup, citric acid, high fructose corn syrup solids, dextrose and other food additives that can trigger allergic reactions like diarrhea and bloating in some people.

Imitation or artificial vanilla flavoring is usually made from a combination of chemicals derived from petroleum or coal tar products. In short, imitation and artificial vanilla flavorings are not created by the distillation of alcohol derived from the Tahitian Orchid plant (vanilla extract) with water.

If you’re looking to add an extra kick of vanilla flavor to a recipe, you can use imitation vanilla flavoring. But if you want the true rich and complex taste of pure vanilla extract, remember that you’ll have to read labels carefully and make sure that pure vanilla extract or imitation flavoring with no gluten is used when you bake or cook.