Artificial Vanilla Flavoring for Baking & Cooking
Looking for a baking extract that will impart strong vanilla taste and flavor in high-temperature applications? Meet imitation vanilla, a frequently-insulted flavoring that is almost guaranteed to be a part of any professional chef or baker's flavor arsenal. It's true: artificial vanilla-type flavor is the dirty little secret the culinary industry doesn't like to talk about. While there really is no denying that the taste and aroma of "real" or "pure" vanilla is richer and deeper than that of synthetic flavors, artificial flavoring is actually the best, and most economical, choice in some situations. In addition, stringent FDA labelling requirements mean that legally, anything labeled "vanilla extract" cannot contain anything except: water, alcohol (in a minimum of 35%), vanilla bean extractives (in a minimum of 13.35%) — the only three ingredients in "pure vanilla extract" — and possibly one or more of five other allowed ingredients: glycerine, propylene glycol, sugar, dextrose, and corn syrup. Any flavoring that contains additional ingredients (we're looking at you, "caramel coloring" and "natural flavors") has to be called just that: vanilla flavor or flavoring, even though it will taste exactly like vanilla extract. Confused yet? We get it. But wait, there's more.
Natural vs Synthetic Vanillin
What makes vanilla seed pods taste and smell the way they do is vanillin, a chemical compound native to vanilla beans and one of 250 or so flavor compounds contained in the plant that emerge when it is dried and cured. This is called "natural vanillin." A weaker version of vanillin can be derived from natural sources, including compounds found in wood, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, sugar, and rice bran. However, in 2007 the FDA changed the rules regarding what can and can't be called "natural vanillin," and those rules excluded much of the native compounds found in natural plants and organic materials other than vanilla orchid seed pods. Since 2007, those vanillins must be called "synthetic" and not "natural."
Natural vs Artificial Flavors
So... vanillin is a natural flavor produced by vanilla plants that tastes and smells like vanilla. Basic, simple vanilla, without the undertones and notes given to specific vanilla beans based on where they grow — those nuanced flavors come from the hundreds of other flavor compounds in the vanilla plant. But there are other compounds from natural sources (plants, organic material) that when combined... taste and smell like vanilla. Those are called (wait for it) "Natural Flavors." Is is also possible to create synthetic flavor compound in laboratories that taste and smell like vanilla. Those are "artificial flavors."
Vanilla Extract vs Imitation Vanilla
Vanilla Extract, when labeled as such, is a simple product that can only contain certain ingredients that give it flavor. Vanilla Flavor or Flavoring or Essence or Flavor Extract or other similar names that aren't "Vanilla Extract," are liquid flavoring products that can contain any combination of natural vanillin, real vanilla extractives, natural flavors, artificial flavors, and additives such as sugar, coloring, and scents. Imitation Vanilla, or Artificial Vanilla, are products made using artificial flavors. They may also contain natural vanillin from real vanilla extractives, but if the product make up includes artificial flavors... it's Imitation Vanilla. Whether imitation vanilla is also called extract, or flavor, or flavoring is basically only a matter of labeling, in that if it's called "Extract" it's out of compliance with the FDA laveling standard.
Why are some Vanilla Extracts called "Flavors"?
According to the FDA's Standard of Identity for vanilla extract in the Code of Federal Regulations, vanilla extract must contain water, alcohol (in a minimum of 35% per gallon), vanilla bean extractives (in a minimum of 13.35 ounces of beans per gallon). Products labeled "vanilla extract" can also contain one or more of five other ingredients: glycerin, propylene glycol, sugar, dextrose, and corn syrup. Any products that do not conform to the Standard of Identity must be called "Flavor" or "Flavoring." The "other ingredients" part is where things get confusing.
- If Pure Vanilla Extract has added coloring, it can't be called "Extract" anymore.
- Vanilla Extract made without alcohol or that is less than 35% alcohol per gallon is not an "Extract" according to the FDA rules.
- Vanilla Extract made with Natural Flavors other than vanilla bean extractives cannot be called "Extract."
Does Alcohol-Free Vanilla Extract Exist?
Technically, no. The defining feature of FDA-compliant vanilla extract is the alcohol content. Reducing or eliminating the percentage of alcohol violates the standard of identity. Vanilla Flavor made from vanilla beans (or vanilla bean extractives), water, and propylene glycol can only technically be called vanilla Flavor or Flavoring.
What is Imitation Vanilla Extract?
Imitation vanilla extract is liquid vanilla flavoring that includes artificial vanillin. It can also contain any number of different ingredients, including pure vanilla extract, natural vanilla flavor, natural flavors, sugar, coloring, and so on. But the moment synthetic vanillin is added... it becomes "imitation vanilla."
Why Use Imitation Vanilla for Baking?
For high temperature baking applications imitation vanilla is actually better because the final results will taste and smell as good, if not better, than the same recipe made using pure vanilla extract. Natural vanillin from vanilla beans is more volatile at higher temperatures. Have you ever baked something using "real" vanilla and noticed that amazing smell filling the kitchen? That's actually the natural vanillin baking off, the same way that the alcohol bakes off. The vanilla flavor and aroma left behind for the final resulting product is significantly less than before it was baked. Artificial, synthetic vanillin will not bake off, leaving a vanilla taste and smell in the final product that is just as intense as when it went into the oven.
So...What is the Deal with Imitation Vanilla and Beavers?
As we know, things falling under the label of "natural flavors" can include flavor compounds from some pretty off-the-wall sources. In the US, the chemical compound castoreum has long been approved for use as an additive, frequently in vanilla products. The catch: naturally-occurring castoreum occurs naturally in...beavers, or to be exact, in the material exuded by the castor sacs of adult beavers. And since those sacs are located on the beaver's backside, people taking a deep dive into ingredient souces started getting concerned about how closely beaver bums were involved in their vanilla flavoring. Today, the castoreum used in vanillas is more often than not synthetically produced. So, yes, beavers and vanilla is a thing, and no, artificial vanilla is not made from beaver butts.
When to Use Imitation Vanilla in Baking?
For high-temp applications (baking, cooking, candy) - imitation vanilla is best, as the flavor and aroma will not bake out.
For low-temp and no-heat applications, using pure vanilla extract will always provide a richer, deeper flavor and aroma than imitation. Using real vanilla also allows the other flavor notes (spicy, woody, creamy, buttery...) to come through to the final product for increased depth of flavor.