Real vanilla extract contains hundreds of organic compounds resulting in its distinctive and complex flavor and aroma, all of which has never been, and probably cannot be, duplicated in the laboratory. Imitation vanilla flavorings are available and, not surprisingly, they are much cheaper than the extract from real vanilla beans, which are the only edible fruit of the orchid family, harvested from special types of orchids grown only in certain parts of the world.
There is not much nutritional value in imitation vanilla extract, the main ingredients being water and alcohol. One teaspoon of imitation vanilla extract equals 4.2 g, comprised of 2.7 g of water and 1.4 g of alcohol. It contains 10 calories, but no protein, carbs or fat. At best, it's a watered-down shot of booze!
Imitation vs. Real Vanilla Extract
The process to make real vanilla extract is labor-intensive as the plants must be hand-pollinated, hand-picked and dried for months to produce the vanillin that yields the familiar flavor. This lengthy process results in and justifies higher prices for the real stuff. In contrast, imitation vanilla flavoring is produced quickly and cheaply. Although it contains vanillin, it is not from the rare orchid. Instead it is chemically synthesized from the essential oil of cloves or made from lignin, which is a byproduct in paper manufacturing that has been chemically treated to resemble the taste of real vanilla.
Fake Imitation Vanilla Extract
Worse yet, imitation vanilla extract purchased in Mexico may not even be "real imitation" vanilla extract. It is made from an entirely different plant material, the Tonka bean, which contains coumarin, a toxic substance banned in the U.S. Coumarin is a compound related to warfarin, a blood-thinning agent, making it especially risky to those on blood-thinning drugs, increasing the potential for bleeding. It can be toxic to the liver and is potentially carcinogenic. Even if the bottle says "no coumarin," don't risk your health or blow your money. If you want imitation vanilla extract, get the real imitation stuff in the United States.
Other Forms of Imitation
Watch out for dark and murky imitation vanilla. It can be made from the ethyl vanillin found in coal tar, according to Vanilla.com, which also informs of a new variety of imitation vanilla flavoring that's made from rice bran extract and becoming popular because it's very cheap. It's showing up in ice cream and appearing on nutritional labeling as "natural flavoring," which is misleading and possibly in violation of Food and Drug Administration regulations.
Statistics on Imitation vs. Real Vanilla Extract
Only 2 percent of the vanilla used in foods and fragrances is pure vanilla extract, meaning 98 percent is cheap, synthetic and chemically processed. Because it's become so cheap to produce, the new generation of imitations are a genuine threat to the growers of the real stuff.