What is imitation vanilla extract?

For starters, what is vanilla? 

You must be familiar with the fundamentals of vanilla in order to comprehend vanilla extract. To begin with, a vanilla bean is not a bean; rather, it is the fruit of orchids belonging to the genus Vanilla. Only a very small portion of the world is home to those vanilla orchids, with Madagascar producing an astounding 80% of the world’s supply. The entire labor-intensive harvesting process, which includes pollination, harvest, and curing (the process by which fat green vanilla pods are transformed into skinny black beans), is carried out by hand. Due to all of these factors, demand far outweighs supply, making vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world, just behind saffron. Since whole vanilla beans are expensive, choose the ripest, freshest ones you can find. Beans that are whole should be fat, shiny, and moist.

Although Madagascar produces about half of the world’s crop, vanilla also comes from Mexico, French Polynesia, Uganda, China, and Indonesia, among other nations. Depending on the country of origin, each variety will have a unique flavor profile. But why is vanilla a coveted ingredient? What does it add to the conversation? Vanilla is endlessly adaptable because its comforting flavors—toasty, musky, floral, or even smoky and earthy—enhance almost any dessert. Warm, rich flavors like coffee, chocolate, hazelnut, brown butter, and cinnamon become cozier thanks to its caramelly richness, while bright flavors like citrus, hibiscus, rosemary, and berry become sharper and more pronounced.

However, have you heard about imitation vanilla? In this article, we’ll discuss imitation vanilla and where it comes from.

Where does imitation vanilla come from? 

Ninety-nine percent of the vanilla extract consumed worldwide is fake imitation vanilla, not a byproduct of the vanilla plant. Instead, synthetic vanillin is used as its primary flavoring agent (a lab-produced version of the same chemical compound that occurs naturally in real vanilla). This synthetic vanilla, which is frequently referred to as “vanilla essence,” is typically made from less-than-organic materials. 

Even though it closely resembles vanilla’s aroma, many would contend that it falls short of accurately capturing all of the intricate floral and woodsy notes that come from the plethora of other flavorings in real vanilla. Not that imitation vanilla doesn’t serve a useful purpose! It’s significantly more affordable, and you might not even be able to tell that it’s a fake in desserts that are loaded with other flavorful ingredients or in baked goods that are baked for a long time. For their distinctive wallop of powerful vanilla flavor, some new-classic desserts, like confetti cake and Dunkaroos, rely on imitation vanilla. The genuine extract is unable to perform the same task. However, the difference will probably be more noticeable for sweets with shorter ingredient lists or that are prepared over low heat or without any heat (such as whipped cream, puddings, custards, pastry cream, and no-bake desserts).

Is imitation vanilla the same as vanilla extract?

Can one be replaced by the other? Let’s dissect the famous argument between vanilla flavor and extract! There is a good chance that you have at least one bottle of vanilla extract in your pantry, whether you are an experienced pancake maker, cookie baker, or frosting maker. This extract, which is available in a number of forms, including imitation vanilla, vanilla flavoring, and pure vanilla extract, is excellent for adding a warm, vanilla flavor to your baked goods. Imitation vanilla, vanilla flavoring, and pure vanilla extract all behave similarly despite having different manufacturing processes. Most of the time, you can substitute one for the other without having your recipe’s flavor change. 

Let’s explore the differences between these three vanilla extracts in more detail. It might be necessary to use twice as much imitation vanilla in non-baked treats like whipped cream, buttercream frosting, and ice cream in order to achieve the same level of flavoring as pure extract. You can substitute 2 teaspoons of imitation vanilla or vanilla flavoring for 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla extract in a recipe to achieve a similar flavor. Therefore, it should be simple to add that cozy, vanilla flavor you love to your baked and unbaked treats, regardless of the extract you happen to have on hand.

Ingredients in Imitation Vanilla that You Need to Know 

The substance that naturally occurs in vanilla beans and gives it its distinctive flavor, vanillin, is made into imitation vanilla instead. The aforementioned wood pulp waste, which has recently lost popularity, as well as coal tar, cow feces, castor gland secretions from beavers (conveniently located near their anus), clove oil, pine bark, and fermented bran are all sources of this synthetic vanillin. Since they were technically derived from edible sources, most of these flavors might be labeled as “natural” since they were technically derived from sources like guaiacol, which is derived from wood creosote or the guaiacum flower. 


However, the only flavor that is subject to federal regulation is real vanilla extract, which may also be referred to as “extract of vanilla.” FDA regulations provide that in vanilla extract, the content of ethyl alcohol is not less than 35 percent by volume and the content of vanilla constituent, as defined in 169.3(c), is not less than one unit per gallon. The label of an extract that contains concentrated vanilla oleoresin, concentrated vanilla extract, or concentrated vanilla flavoring must state “made from” or “made in part from” those specific ingredients.

Advantage and Disadvantages of Imitation Vanilla 

Favorable in terms of calories and fat 

The rich flavor of imitation vanilla is frequently added to baked goods, many of which have a lot of calories and fat. The good news is that imitation vanilla flavoring has no impact on calories or fat content. This liquid has 31 calories in a 1-tablespoon serving with no fat. If you consume 2,000 calories per day, you should generally keep your fat intake to 44 to 78 grams per day. 

Low sodium intake 

The sodium content of imitation vanilla flavoring is just 1 milligram, which is very little. Keeping sodium levels low in ingredients is important because many recipes that incorporate vanilla flavoring also call for the addition of salt, which causes the final product to contain a lot of sodium. To prevent worsening high blood pressure and to lower the risk of stroke and heart attack, the American Heart Association advises most Americans to limit their daily sodium intake to under 1,500 milligrams. 

Lack of vitamins and minerals is a drawback

Do not count on imitation vanilla flavoring to significantly increase your vitamin and mineral intake. One serving of this liquid provides 3% of the daily recommended manganese intake and 1% of the daily recommended riboflavin intake. Even though there isn’t much of either of these nutrients present, imitation vanilla can help you maintain strong bones and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Potential Alcohol Content 

Even though you can buy imitation vanilla flavoring without alcohol, many brands of it do. To preserve the vanilla flavor, up to 4.3 grams of alcohol can be found in one tablespoon. The alcohol in this liquid typically burns off during cooking or baking, but cases of people consuming alcohol-containing imitation vanilla flavoring to get drunk have been documented. 

Has a drawback of including chemical additives 

Lignin vanillin, a chemically created substance that imitates the flavor of vanillin, the natural extract from real vanilla that gives it its flavor, is the basis for imitation vanilla flavoring. Utilizing wastes generated by the paper manufacturing sector, lignin vanillin is produced. Glycerin or a glycol base is also present in some vanilla flavorings.