Vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor and aroma, used in everything from confectionary to candles. Vanilla is also one of the planet’s most valuable substances, fetching prices higher than precious metals.
At those prices, it's no wonder that chefs and home cooks alike use vanilla flavoring as a substitute.
But where does vanilla flavoring come from, and is it as good as the real thing? Also, how is there a link between beaver butts and vanilla flavoring?
Below we've broken it down piece by piece. Enjoy!
Real Vanilla Vs. Vanilla Flavoring
The compound that accounts for most flavor in both vanilla flavoring and real vanilla is a sweet-smelling phenolic aldehyde known as vanillin.
However, the full-bodied taste of genuine vanilla is supported by other flavor compounds extracted from the vanilla bean: 4-hydroxybenzoic acid and 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, vanillic acid, guaiacol, and anise alcohol, which are present in tiny quantities but have an oversized effect on flavor.
Vanilla flavoring also contains vanillin, but it lacks many supporting flavor and aroma compounds included in real vanilla.
For this reason, it doesn’t have the complex, well-rounded taste of real vanilla or mimic its full-bodied mouthfeel.
Pure vanillin has been described as simple or one-dimensional, missing out on the subtle spice that real vanilla achieves with all its layers of complexity.
Where Does Real Vanilla Come From?
Real vanilla comes from the fruiting body of the Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla tahitiensis orchid. Each flower, pollinated by hand, produces only one vanilla bean.
After harvest, the beans undergo a complicated process of curing, sweating, and drying before they are shipped to producers who extract their flavor compounds into ethanol and water.
Vanillin is the compound that makes the spice recognizable, but more than 250 complimentary flavor chemicals are also naturally present in the vanilla bean.
These differ depending on where the vanilla bean grows, giving each origin its own unique terroir.
Where Does Vanilla Flavoring Come From?
Vanilla flavoring also consists of flavor compounds suspended in ethanol and water. Like real vanilla extract, the artificial variety consists primarily of vanillin. But in this case, it doesn’t come from the vanilla orchid.
Rumors abound that vanilla flavoring is derived from the scent glands of beavers; this is almost certainly not true. Castoreum, the substance that can be “milked” from the animals' scent glands, has a pleasant musky odor. It can indeed be used to make vanillin.
However, the act of milking a beaver is awkward, challenging, and rarely done, so only minuscule quantities of castoreum are procured each year.
While small quantities have been used as a food additive in the past, evidence indicates that today almost all castoreum is used only as perfume or candle scents.
The food industry simply demands larger quantities of vanillin than beaver castoreum can support!
Instead, large amounts of vanillin are produced from other synthetic or natural sources.
Natural sources include fermentation of ferulic acid from rice bran and the derivation of vanillin from related compounds that remain in the husks of vanilla beans after vanilla extract is made.
Synthetic vanillin comes from eugenol in clove oil, spruce wood pulp, and petroleum byproducts. All of these pathways generate vanilla flavoring for the food and beverage industry.
Is Real Vanilla Better?
Real vanilla is generally considered superior, thanks to its rich interaction of subtle aroma layers. In contrast, the cheapest forms of vanilla flavoring are merely pure vanillin suspended in glycerol and brown coloring.
However, some flavor houses specializing in vanilla flavoring make a version that includes flavors beyond simply vanillin and is very competitive with the genuine product. Vanilla flavorings don’t have to be bad–but the cheap ones usually are.
Because global demand for the spice so extravagantly exceeds vanilla bean production, over 95% of the world’s supply comes from vanilla flavoring.
The result is that many consumers have become accustomed to this flavor and often prefer it over real vanilla in blind taste tests. Is real vanilla better? It depends on who’s tasting!
Where Does Vanilla Extract Come From?
Vanilla extract simply represents a way of transferring flavor out of vanilla beans. The flavor and aroma compounds that give vanilla its characteristic bouquet are soluble in either water or ethanol, so...
simply soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and alcohol at different temperatures causes the flavor chemicals to move into the liquid solution.
The resulting fluid is brown, dense, and sweet-smelling, with all the flavor of the vanilla bean.
Real vanilla extract must comply with strict legal standards that guarantee its purity and flavor intensity; in the U.S., it must contain 100 grams of vanilla beans per liter of extract (13.35 ounces per gallon) and at least 35% alcohol.
Other Forms of Vanilla
You can purchase whole vanilla beans for use in recipes. To use them, split the vanilla bean down the side and scoop the seeds into your dish.
The seeds of one fresh vanilla bean are approximately equivalent to 1 Tbsp of vanilla extract.
Vanilla paste is made by extracting the flavor of vanilla beans into a thick sugar syrup rather than into a water and alcohol solution. Vanilla paste contains vanilla seeds, which amplify the taste and have an attractive appearance. It is more potent than vanilla extract, so use 1 tsp of paste per 1 Tbsp extract.
Vanilla powder is made from dried, concentrated vanilla extract in a base of cornstarch to prevent clumping. Use 2 tsp of vanilla powder per 1 Tbsp of extract.
Ground vanilla bean powder is made from dried and ground whole vanilla beans, but it contains no sugar or alcohol, so it does not distribute efficiently. Start with 1 tsp of ground vanilla powder per 1 Tbsp of extract, but make sure to add it early so it can steep in a recipe to fully extract its flavor.
In short: 1 fresh vanilla bean = 1 Tbsp vanilla extract = 1 Tbsp vanilla flavoring = 1 tsp vanilla paste = 2 tsp vanilla powder = 1 tsp properly steeped ground vanilla beans
Can I use vanilla flavoring if a recipe calls for a vanilla bean? What about vanilla extract?
Yes. One whole Tablespoon of real vanilla extract or vanilla flavoring is approximately equivalent to the seeds of a fresh vanilla bean.
Where does vanilla flavoring in drinks come from?
Almost all vanilla used in the food and beverage industry is synthetic, derived from guaiacol (a fossil fuel product) or lignin (wood pulp).
A smaller portion is naturally derived vanilla flavoring from rice bran or corn sugar.
Finally, a tiny fraction is real vanilla, used only in the most premium products.
From barbeque to chocolate, vanilla completes a dish with its subtle, creamy undertones. Because demand for the world’s most popular spice far outstrips its supply, thousands of tons of vanilla flavoring are produced each year.
The cost savings that vanilla flavoring delivers make it possible for even budget cooks to keep vanilla on the shelf as a kitchen staple.
Let us know if you have any questions or comments. We would love to hear from you!