What Are the Health Benefits of Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is made by dissolving vanilla beans in alcohol to create the dark colored liquid with the powerful scent of natural vanilla. All vanilla extracts are high in alcohol, but the alcohol evaporates when exposed to high heat, such as during baking. While they may smell similar, vanilla extract is not the same as artificial vanilla flavor, which is made with a chemical extracted from coal tar and wood. Vanilla extract is richer tasting and may offer health benefits you won't get from the artificial version.

Close-up of dried vanilla sticks. (Image: ValentynVolkov/iStock/Getty Images)

Antioxidant Activity

Natural vanilla extract contains numerous antioxidants, including vanillic acid and vanillin. Antioxidants protect your body from damage from harmful components, such as free radicals and toxins. Researchers in a 2007 study published in the "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry" found that vanilla extract contains 26 to 90 percent of the antioxidants of unprocessed vanilla, depending on the type of antioxidant and the concentration of the extract. They concluded that vanilla showed great potential as a health supplement and as a food preservative.

Anti-Inflammation Abilities

Vanillin is a natural antioxidant and gives vanilla beans their distinctive aroma. An animal study published in a 2011 issue of the "European Journal of Pharmacology" found that as a result of the vanillin content, vanilla extract had powerful liver-protective abilities, as well as anti-inflammatory abilities. Researchers found that treating with vanillin led to lower overall inflammation in animals. However, it's not yet known whether it has the same benefits for people.

Might Lower Cholesterol

The vanillin found in vanilla extract may have cholesterol-lowering benefits, according to a study published in 2013 in the "Indian Journal of Experimental Biology." The animal study found that taking high doses of vanillin led to a significant reduction in total blood cholesterol levels in rats who were fed a high-fat diet. While promising, the study, conducted over 45 days, used much higher quantities of vanillin than is usually found in a serving of vanilla extract. More research is needed to determine its effects.

Not Just For Baking

While vanilla extract is delicious in many baked goods, you may also add it to other foods. Include it in smoothies, milkshakes and even plain yogurt for a warm, rich flavor. In some cases, you may be able to choose the variety of vanilla bean featured in an extract. Mexican, Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla extracts offer varying flavors and aroma. Tahitian vanilla is the most aromatic, Mexican vanilla has a nuttier taste, and Madagascar vanilla offers a more buttery flavor.

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