Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Flavor Explained

Purchasing vanilla extract and vanilla flavoring products can be daunting. First, it is important to realize what vanilla extract this. Vanilla extract is a liquid product that has been extracted from vanilla beans and contains over 300 flavor compounds. Vanilla beans come from the vanilla orchid. Vanilla is grown around the world in tropical climates from Mexico to Madagascar to Tonga.

Vanilla Flavor Products

There are a lot of different vanilla flavoring products on the market. There are three main types of vanilla products on the market are vanilla extract, imitation vanilla, and blends of vanilla extract and imitation vanilla. Sometimes it is difficult to tell which type of product you are purchasing.

Vanilla beans cured

Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract involves extracting the flavor compounds from vanilla beans. There are over 300 different flavor compounds in a vanilla bean that are part of its flavor profile. The flavor compounds make up less than 2% of the weight of a vanilla bean. Some of the compounds are water soluble, others are alcohol soluble.

Production of vanilla extract starts with curing vanilla beans, a process that takes several months. The next step, extracting the flavor compounds, can be done using several methods.

Cold Extraction

The cured vanilla beans are first macerated. They are then put in tanks with various concentrations of ethanol and water in continual circulated. The different concentrations of ethanol dissolve and extract different flavor compounds. The different compounds are then blended at the end to get the final vanilla extract. This method of extraction has the most amount of flavor compounds. It also takes a long time to extract all of the vanilla flavor compounds. The entire cold extraction process can take 14 months from picking the beans to the final product.

Hot and Pressure Extraction

The process of hot/pressure extraction starts the same way as cold extraction. The difference is that heat and pressure are added to the process. This greatly speeds up the time that it takes to extract the vanilla flavor compounds from the vanilla beans. Many of the flavor compounds are sensitive to heat and evaporate during this process. This leaves fewer flavor compounds compared to the cold extraction method.

Alcohol-Free Extraction

It is possible to extract the vanilla compounds in vanilla beans without alcohol. A different solvent is used, typically glycerin, and either the cold or hot extraction method is used. Depending on the solvent used, this method can extract fewer compounds than using alcohol as a solvent.

Imitation Vanilla

There are hundreds of flavor compounds in the vanilla bean but the main flavor compound is called vanillin. Imitation vanilla is vanillin that is synthetically derived. Over 80% of the vanillin flavor is synthesized from the petrochemical precursor guaiacol. The second most common method to synthesize vanillin is to use coniferyl alcohol from the spruce tree lignin.

Over 99% of vanilla flavor used in the United States is imitation vanilla. Since imitation vanilla is a single compound, it does not have the robust flavor of pure vanilla extract.

Vanilla Products Compared

Most of the vanilla flavor compounds are heat sensitive and evaporate at temperatures over 300F. If you are baking or using vanilla as a complementary flavor, it is less important what vanilla product you use since most of the flavor compounds in vanilla extract will evaporate. If you are making products where vanilla is the primary flavor and products that are not heated, using cold extracted vanilla extract can make a huge difference in the flavor.

The US regulates the term “pure vanilla extract.” In order for a product to be labeled “pure vanilla extract, ” the solution must contain a minimum of 35% alcohol and 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter of extract. If it does not have “pure” in the title, there is no regulation on the strength of the product. Many commercial “pure vanilla extracts” are double and triple strength, which allows for less liquid to be used.

This all sounds simple, but I am going to highlight some vanilla products found on Amazon and we will see what flavoring they really contain.

This is cheap and simple 100% imitation vanilla. The flavoring agent comes from synthetic vanillin. I could not determine how the vanillin was derived.

This product is very cheap for a vanilla product that is made with “Mexico’s Finest Pure Vanilla.” It turns out that this product contains 2% vanilla extract and the rest of the vanilla flavor comes from vanillin and ethyl vanillin. This is not close to being pure vanilla extract, but this is a cheap product that provides more flavor compounds than a product with 100% vanillin.

This is where vanilla products start to get confusing. Watkins All Natural Original Gourmet Baking Vanilla, with Pure Vanilla Extract is not a cheap product. If you examine the wording, it is not pure vanilla extract. One of the ingredients is pure vanilla extract and the rest of the flavoring comes from “other natural flavors.” A positive is that it does not contain any synthetic vanillin, but we don’t know what all the flavor compounds are. They add “fruit juice” as a coloring agent. This product is non-GMO.

This is pure vanilla extract. Vanilla beans are imported into the USA and they are extracted in Colorado. They do not mention if it is cold or hot extraction method, which normally means it is the hot extraction method. It is 65% water and 35% alcohol. Kosher certified.

Some other non-GMO pure vanilla extracts are Watkins Pure Vanilla Extract and McCormick All Natural Pure Vanilla Extract.

This is expensive vanilla. It is also cold-pressed pure vanilla extract, a process which can take over 12 months from harvesting the vanilla beans.

This is 100% pure vanilla extract using the cold-press method. This vanilla comes from small many small farms in Tonga and is a very high-quality product. According to people I talked to in Tonga, Heilala is picky about the quality of vanilla beans they purchase and they pay a fair price for them.

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