I never really knew or considered that there was a difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla until I read about it on a few other blogs awhile back. As much as anyone else, I love finding bargains and different ways to save money on buying ingredients, considering how often I bake and cook, not to mention how ubiquitous vanilla extract is in baking.
I decided to do some light research and found that the process of making vanilla extract and imitation vanilla are entirely different. Do you know what exactly imitation vanilla is? The answer might be a bit shocking. So is it really worth it to save a few dollars and buy the imitation vanilla “flavor” rather than the pure 100% vanilla extract?
First, let’s consider what vanilla extract is. From what I understand and have been able to research, vanilla extract is made by soaking or extracting vanilla beans in an alcohol solution (vodka for example) and then left to age for a certain amount of time. For the term “pure” to be applied to a vanilla product, it must be soaked in a 35% alcohol solution and contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon; these standards are set by the FDA. Good, pure vanilla, made the way it is, will last forever like liquor.
While there are regulated standards for the process of making vanilla extract, there is no standard for the quality of the vanilla beans used. This is where it is important to consider the different types of vanilla bean and brand of vanilla extract. “Premium” extracts, which usually contain higher percentages of alcohol for better extraction and higher quality ingredients overall, may actually be worth the price increase if cheaper, lower quality vanilla beans are considered. There are also different varieties of vanilla beans used in the extraction process. Tahitian and Bourbon are the two most common types used.
Imitation vanilla is derived from either two sources. The vanilla “flavor” that comes from vanilla extract is the result of the flavor compound vanillin. As it turns out, this compound can be replicated through the process of chemically treated paper by-products (which is originally a pollutant) or a coal-tar derivative. The use of either method is not very palatable and makes you consider if those synthetic methods of producing vanilla extract is worth it in terms of health rather than money.
I tried doing some research on the possible health risks of using imitation vanilla rather than pure vanilla extract and I couldn’t find anything concrete. Generally speaking though, I’ve found that it takes twice the amount of imitation vanilla to match that of pure vanilla extract, so in the end, it may not be all that economical to spring for the artificial flavoring instead of the real thing. We must also remember that, as good as it may be, imitation vanilla is still, at best, a fake and will never taste quite like the real thing (some people report a more bitter aftertaste when using imitation vanilla, despite its sugary rather than vanilla smell).
So with that, I leave it up to you to decide whether or not you’ll stick to the pure vanilla extract or its imitation, but I know for me, I will spend the extra money for the real thing. If you have any other information about vanilla extract, please let me know! For more in-depth information on vanilla extract, you can check out these resources: Vanilla Company & Joy of Baking.