How we tested
Vanilla is the world's most popular flavor and fragrance. It comes in two forms: pure vanilla extract, which is derived from the seed pods of vanilla orchid vines, and synthetic vanilla, which is manufactured in a lab. Just 1 percent of the world's vanilla flavor is “real”; the rest is imitation.
We call for vanilla widely in our recipes. When we last evaluated it in 2009, a pure vanilla won our blind taste tests. Since then, its price has skyrocketed. Pure vanilla extract from McCormick, one of the most well-known brands, costs 33 percent more now than it did back then. Meanwhile, the price of imitation vanilla has remained steady.
In the last decade, food Goliaths such as Unilever and Nestlé have moved toward using more “natural” ingredients, which has led to an increase in demand for pure extract. In 2017, a cyclone wiped out 30 percent of the vanilla crop on Madagascar, the island that produces 80 percent of the world's vanilla beans. Both factors have contributed to the price hike.
So how does all this affect the vanilla we buy at the supermarket? To find out, we rounded up 10 of the top-selling products in the country—seven pure extracts and three imitation products priced from $0.12 to $6.19 an ounce. We tasted all the products uncooked in pudding and frosting and then pitted the top-rated pure extract against the top-rated imitation product in cake and cookies. But first, we had to understand the differences between the two styles.
How Vanilla Products Are Made
A labor-intensive crop, vanilla orchids are both hand-pollinated and hand-picked, mostly on small farms. After harvesting, the beans are cured. First, they're blanched or wilted to kill yeasts and fungi, which prevent rot. This can be done in the sun, in an oven, in hot water, or in a freezer. Next, in a process known as sweating, the beans are wrapped in cloth and put in hot boxes to help develop flavor. The beans are then dried over the course of several weeks and later conditioned, or kept in closed boxes for several months, to fully mature their flavor. Vanilla extract is made by soaking the beans in liquid, typically a mixture of alcohol and water.
Conversely, the faux stuff is flavored primarily with synthesized vanillin, the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans. More than 15,000 tons of pure vanillin are industrially manufactured each year using a chemical process that starts with a substance called guaiacol. Guaiacol can be manufactured from components of clove oil, wood pulp, or other sources, but most of the world's supply is derived from petroleum. According to Matt Hartings, associate professor of chemistry at American University, the vanillin is diluted with a liquid such as alcohol or propylene glycol, and some producers add other flavorings, such as cocoa or tea extracts, for complexity of flavor. Caramel coloring is also usually added to make the clear vanillin look more like pure extract.
The Surprising Results
For the most part, our tasters could not tell the difference between real and fake vanilla flavor. Dr. Bill Carroll, adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University, said he's not surprised. Vanillin that is synthesized in a lab is identical at the molecular level to vanillin derived from an orchid and thus will taste the same.
We had vanillin levels tested at an independent lab and found that the imitation products ranged from 0.32 to 0.64 grams of vanillin per 100 milliliters; the pure extracts had just 0.03 to 0.10 grams per 100 milliliters—so the product with the most vanillin had 21 times as much as the product with the least. In general, we liked stronger vanilla flavor. Baker's Imitation Vanilla Flavor, which had the second-highest vanillin level at 0.58 grams per 100 milliliters, was our overall favorite. But there was something interesting about Baker's ingredient list: It included vanillin as well as ethyl vanillin. Chemists we spoke with said this vanillin has been modified to be two and a half to three times stronger; Hartings called it “superboosted.” And our tasters approved: “Lingering; smells like a vanilla bean pod,” said one.
The real vanillas were more divisive. U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations require “pure vanilla extract” to contain at least 35 percent alcohol. Imitation vanilla products contain less or none at all. Some tasters liked the boozy notes, but others found the pure extracts too alcohol-forward.
Additionally, vanillin is only one of the roughly 250 flavor volatiles found in pure extract. When the flavor is extracted from the pods, everything comes along for the ride. We often liked the direction they went in—our top-rated pure extract was “floral” and “woodsy”—but sometimes the flavors were a bit askew. Notes such as banana, cotton candy, and almond weren't welcomed in a classic vanilla pudding. Overall, our tasters favored simple vanilla flavor over busier-tasting products.
So, Which Vanilla Should You Buy?
Well, it's complicated. In a head-to-head battle between our top-rated imitation vanilla product, Baker's, and our top-rated pure extract, Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract, the imitation product won both times. Even our editor in chief, Dan Souza (yes, I'm throwing you under the bus, Dan), came out of the cake tasting and said, “Who knew? I like imitation vanilla.” But Simply Organic was still good, as were many of the other pure extracts. Like taste in music, it's a personal choice. Do you want to listen to a soloist or a symphony? Some people will never buy an imitation vanilla because it's made from petroleum, because it's not “real,” because it's not as interesting or complex, or because they want to support small farmers. Others simply cannot justify the price of pure vanilla extract, and that's fair, too. And still others, perhaps the data-driven among us, will purchase solely based on the rankings from our blind taste tests. For that reason, we've named two winners: Baker's Imitation Vanilla Flavor ($0.98 for 8 fluid ounces) is our winning imitation vanilla product, and Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract ($12.99 for 4 fluid ounces) is our winning pure vanilla extract. Which team are you on?