Published March 1, 2001. From Cook's Illustrated.
We wanted to know whether "pure" extract was worth the price.
Pure extracts are essential oils extracted from natural flavoring agents such as fruit rinds, nuts, and herbs and then dissolved in alcohol. Imitation extracts are fabricated from chemical compounds that mimic natural flavors; these compounds are then also dissolved in alcohol. As with most things natural and synthetic, natural products cost more. When it came to coconut extract, we wanted to know whether "pure" was worth the price. So we made buttercream frosting for our Coconut Layer Cake using three extracts—including one each of imitation, natural, and gourmet extracts—and put them to the test.
One flavoring was uniformly rejected for bringing new meaning to the word artificial. One taster commented, "I feel like I'm eating suntan lotion." Tasters couldn’t detect any off flavors in our runner-up and considered this extract "subtle" and "good." Our winner, made from the pulp of coconuts, was the most "deeply coconutty" and highly praised of the group.