I ate my wafer...

5/30/2006

There's more than one chemical compound in real vanilla extract, but the major one is vanillin, and it's responsible for most of the flavor. There's a variety of ways to make synthetic vanillin, but the most efficient (and cool, in a very nerdy way) method used in the U.S. involves some wild chemistry and wood pulp waste. A less elegant approach uses coal tar as the starting chemical, but the final product vanillin is completely identical to vanillin from vanilla beans in both cases.

So, the vanillin part of synthetic vanilla is EXACTLY the same as real vanilla extract, but the more subtle other flavors have to be added to the fake vanilla. One way to do this is by making an extract from Tonka Beans which unfortunately contains coumarin, which has nasty blood thinning abilities (it’s a really close chemical cousin to both Warfarin and rat poisons). Due to both the blood thinning properties, and causing liver and kidney issues, the FDA banned coumarin as a food additive in the 1950's. Unfortunately, most of the third world doesn't have effective food additive regulation, and Tonka Beans are one of the best ways to juice up synthetic vanillin to make fake vanilla extract.

Apparently, the percentage of coumarin found in vanilla extracts imported from Mexico and the Caribbean has significantly dropped as of late, which is good. There's still plenty of other nasty things floating around in fake vanilla, like red dyes that are banned in the U.S.

Anyway, the important part is all health concerns aside, virtually all "vanilla extract" that people bring home from Mexico is fake. During my food and drug law class, we had a guest from Michigan Department of Agriculture who said that he had yet to test a single bottle of vanilla extract bought in Mexico that was real, and it was completely safe to bet that every large bottle (i.e. the 16oz or so plastic ones) for sale to tourists, in all of Latin America contained fake vanillin with random additives.

My take on the matter is if you're going to buy fake vanillin anyway, you might as well buy it in the U.S. so you don't have to sweat the coumadin/red dye/additive issues.

12 Comments:

  • There's a LOT of (fake) vanilla extract in Cinnabons. Of course, there's a lot of it in just about all baked goods.

    Madness!

    By Anonymous jake allen, at 8:41 PM  

  • Yeah, but that's good american fake vanilla, which is every bit as healthy as real extract...

    By Blogger Bob, at 9:03 PM  

  • Yikes! Good thing my house-husbanding duties don't involve a lot of (or any) baking! But what's up with saffron?

    By Blogger DirtCrashr, at 12:17 PM  

  • Good to know, good to know. . .

    By Blogger Blandus, at 3:18 PM  

  • huh, travelers beware... I had no idea vanilla was such a popular thing for tourists to buy in mexico...

    By Blogger The Gringo Himself, at 11:33 AM  

  • I must say that for someone who just might stumble across your blog, such as myself, your post would appear to be incredibly random. What would prompt a post about vanilla extract? Did you have a bad experience with it as a child or something?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:35 PM  

  • Well, lol, I am a very random person at times. However, over Memorial Day weekend, I got into a conversation where I tried to explain how Mexican vanilla was usually fake, and by the time I dug out the sources it seemed like I should do something with the information. Hence a blog post. I didn't give detailed background about the topic since I didn't want to embarrass anyone involved.

    By Blogger Bob, at 7:12 PM  

  • Wow, you need a woman... Who in the world knows that?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:59 PM  

  • Hahahaha, but not, actually, I have several women in my life here this summer in waterford, and my blog posting is no more or less random for it.

    I'm just random, period.

    By Blogger Bob, at 1:04 PM  

  • I seem to remember from my Jelly Belly factory tour that most, if not all, of Jelly Belly flavors are similarly "fake."

    By Blogger luke, at 4:07 PM  

  • The fact that there is fake vanilla that is exactly the same as natural vanilla is pretty cool.

    My favorite part of New Jersey is the Natural Flavors factorys that line one stretch of the highway.

    By Blogger Daniel Silliman, at 5:45 PM  

  • um Cinnabons!!

    "sweet sugary goodness in my veins!!"

    Hey, its a full moon coming.

    anyway! I had NO idea about fake vanilla & blood thinking... interesting.

    as an aside, I find that keeping a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar makes lovely tea sugar.

    but I digress again.

    My point? buy a vanilla bean & soak it in alcohol.

    voila. its not extract... but hey, makes great cake syrup for soaking rum cake!!

    By Anonymous BlueBerry Pick'n is ThisCanadian, at 6:56 PM  

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