It is claimed that imitation vanilla flavor contains petroleum, wood pulp from paper mill waste, or even cow poop.
If there is one good reason not to use imitation vanilla flavoring, it is because it is an imitation, a pale ghost of the real thing. But are there other, more serious reasons not to use artificial vanilla? Does it contain nasty stuff like petroleum, wood pulp from paper mill waste, or even worse, cow poop?
Unless you found this article by asking the same questions, you may be wondering why I am even bringing this up. Well, certain facts about the different ways imitation vanilla is made causes a lot of confusion and misleading claims about what it contains. In this way, it is similar to the so-called yoga mat chemical, azodicarbonamide. Since this chemical is used in the plastics industry to make springy foam rubber such as yoga mats, and also in the food industry such as in bread doughs, it was implied by certain individuals that certain bread products basically contained yoga mat material.
I want you to consider the title of this post for a minute. The title could itself help to create just the kind of confusion I am trying to avoid. While I had to choose a title that accurately described the content of this article, and which would help people find the article through search, simply asking the question, in a way, can help in this myth. However, I will do my best to clear up the confusion. Here are two examples of articles that make claims about imitation vanilla flavoring containing petroleum, paper mill waste, and even more nasty stuff like cow poop.
The first was published on a site called SpecialtyFoods and posted by an outfit called Nielson-Massey Fine Vanillas & Flavors. The title: What’s Really in Your Imitation Vanilla? Petroleum, Paper Mill Waste.
The second would seem at first glance to be a bit more authoritative. It is published on a site called Chemicals are Our Friends and called Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Vanilla]. This article is all about imitation vanilla and has very little to do with actual vanilla, while the first article is actually just an advertisement for the company’s real vanilla extracts.
Both articles seem to be misleading, albeit in different ways. Both of them are about the same subject, how imitation vanilla is made. Although the body of the first article never actually states that imitation vanilla contains
the materials listed in the title, the title will mislead many who do not bother to read further.
On the other hand, when I found the second article I thought at first glance it to be an authoritative post. Yet there are many faulty interpretations and misunderstandings. Regardless, both are examples of myth-building. One blatantly misstates facts by using a click-bait title and the other misinterprets the body of facts, leading readers confused, at best. I would encourage you to ignore the attempt to mislead in the first article, without suggesting you ignore their products, which I’m sure are very fine. For the remainder of this article, I’ll explain where these ideas came from and reveal the truth about vanillin, or synthetic vanilla.
What is Imitation Vanilla?
Imitation vanilla, which some people call artificial vanilla, is by and large made up of one chemical: vanillin. This
chemical is the principal flavor compound in actual vanilla beans. Since most of the vanillin used to make imitation vanilla flavoring is synthesized, it is more properly called synthetic vanilla. Vanillin is used widely in the baking, chocolate, and confections industries.
An actual vanilla bean contains a whole lot of other compounds, including vanillin derivatives. All these different compounds come together to create the actual flavor experience of vanilla. Some part of that is due to the volatile oils responsible for its wonderful aroma. No wonder cooks prefer the real thing since whether you use natural vanilla extract actual vanilla beans, it is far superior. So, to be clear about what I am saying, real vanilla extract, or actual vanilla beans, are far superior to imitation vanillin, which does not capture the full flavor experience of true vanilla. It does, however, deliver an approximation of the vanilla taste. Call it a pale ghost of real vanilla. Below is a picture of a vanillin molecule.
Vanilla is One of the Most Expensive Spices in the World
I don’t think it’s very hard to understand that one molecule could not possibly be the same as the complex array of compounds which are found in vanilla, even if vanillin is the principal flavor component of those compounds. However, real is very expensive. Recent crop shortages have driven up the prices even further. Reports in March of this year indicated vanilla beans to be more expensive than silver. At last check, just TWO vanilla beans were going for $28 at my grocery store. That’s $112 an ounce, or just 8 vanilla beans! But vanilla always has been, and probably always will, be one of the most expensive spices, second only to saffron. That means if I wanted to buy a pound of vanilla beans at the grocery store, it would cost me $1792! But vanilla beans always have been, and probably always will be one of the most expensive spices on Earth, second only to saffron, which can cost upwards of $5000 a pound.
How is Vanillin Made?
Vanillin, then, is a cheaper alternative. The question is how is it made? Is it really synthesized from scratch in a lab?
Obviously extracting it from actual vanilla beans would make no sense. So, if it’s not made from scratch, is it made by some other means?
This is where the misinformation beings. It turns out that it is true, that vanillin can be made from, of all things, the
lignans in cow poop. It can also be made from lignans from wood pulp. The lignans get in the cows because they eat plants and plants contain lignans. There are also petroleum related molecules which can be used to derive vanillin: phenol, catechol, and guaiacol. It can be derived from eugenol found in clove oil.
As a result, you will read articles like the ones cited about how imitation vanilla contains wood pulp!
Lignin, a waste product of the wood pulp industry, can be used to produce vanillin by a degradation process which involves treating it with alkali and oxidizing agents. This produces alcohol like compounds which can then be oxidized to vanillin. Eugenol can be converted alkaline treatment to isoeugenol which is then oxidized to vanillin. This produces vanillin identical to that found in vanilla beans.
As well, vanillin can be derived from curcumin found in turmeric (Curcuma longa). Curcumin is touted as a very beneficial molecule and turmeric supplements are very popular right now and I myself use regularly use turmeric. Two molecules of vanillin can be derived from each molecule of curcumin. There are also other ways of producing vanillin, including de novo synthesis by microbial means. Should we believe that a molecule of vanillin produced from curcumin is somehow better for us than vanillin produced from wood lignan? Whether nature-identical or not, in none of these cases does the vanillin contain wood pulp, cow poop, turmeric, cloves, or petroleum.
Vanillin Does Not Contain Wood Pulp, Petroleum, or Cow Poop
Although we can debate the effect these industries have on our environment, you can feel safe in ignoring articles that tell you artificial vanilla flavoring contains any of these nasty sounding things. A good enough reason not to use imitation vanilla is that it is not nearly as good as real vanilla! There are many phenolic compounds, and even vanillin derivatives like vanillyl ethyl ether and vanillin 2,3-butanediol acetal, which help determine the flavor of vanilla.