Vanilla extract is widely used in different types of foods for flavoring and can be bought as an extract, a flavor and clear.
You’re here because you’re wondering if vanilla extract is harmful. The answer is generally no, however, it’s best to read the label and buy the best extract you can afford. It’s also important to not confuse vanilla extract with vanilla flavor.
Quality, pure vanilla is very expensive, which is one reason inexpensive versions of extract and flavoring have been created. Vanilla (extract) is a very labor-intensive crop, requiring 600 hand-pollinated blossoms to produce 1 kilogram of cured beans, so again, buying pure versions can cost a lot of money.
To make pure vanilla extract, vanilla beans, which are the “fruit” of the vanilla plant, are added to a solution of distilled water and 35 percent ethanol and soaked, since alcohol is the most effective way to extract the vanilla flavor. When done, you’re left with a dark deep liquid known as vanilla.
According to the FDA definition, a “pure” extract means that the vanilla flavor can only come from vanilla beans and nothing else, but this does not include the extracts other ingredients such as sugar and sometimes coloring.
Due to the way the vanilla is made, dark brown pods being soaked in alcohol, it is not possible to have the outcome be a clear vanilla, therefore, clear or colorless vanilla is completely artificial.
If you buy vanilla flavor, that product consists of artificially-derived vanillin. Synthetic vanillin, which is commonly used as a flavoring in vanilla flavor, is a constituent of wood by-products.
According to the Toxicology Data Network, synthetic vanillin is said to have no significant effects on humans when consumed, but has been known to be a skin irritant with direct contact. Synthetic vanillin is also used as a flavoring agent in foods, beverages and pharmaceuticals.
Harvard reports that this synthetic version has been used since the 1930s, not only to meet the demand for a cost-effective vanilla, but also because consumers have shown to prefer it in baked goods.
As for Mexican vanilla, Mexico is the origin of vanilla and once produced the world’s finest, however, now, a lot of the vanillas are imitation and contain coumarin, a substance shown to cause hepatotoxity in animals, chemical-driven liver damage.
It was banned by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States in 1954, but can still be found in some vanilla products around Latin America and the Caribbean.
If you’re in the market for Mexican vanilla, make sure to read the label and look for pure vanilla that says “this product does not contain coumarin”. If you’re concerned about consuming the synthetic flavoring found in US brands, try to opt for a vanilla that is not labeled as “flavor”.