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Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Vanilla

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Vanilla

As someone who loves to bake, I am a huge fan of vanilla. We bakers can buy artificial vanilla extract, natural vanilla extract, or we can make our own extract (recipe below)! Plus there are tons of vanilla flavored and scented products out there. However, the majority of these tasty and scented products do not actually use real vanilla extract. When I write “real vanilla extract” I mean the flavor or scent extracted from the vanilla bean itself. It’s important to specify because (believe it or not!) naturally derived vanilla extract may not necessarily come from a vanilla bean! Why? This brings me to the first thing you never wanted to know about vanilla:

1. The vanilla bean demand dilemma

VanillinThe key chemical compound in vanilla that gives it that lovely vanilla flavor is vanillin. Unfortunately, it’s tough for vanilla bean supply to meet demands (NYT 2002Huffington Post 2012), which is partly responsible for the high costs of natural vanilla. The production process of vanilla beans takes about 5-6 years, plus they have to be pollinated by hand, and these cute little fruits (yes, they’re actually a fruit!) have to be hand-picked! Whew! After all of that, of course these beans are expensive, and the high costs and high demand provide a strong argument for alternative sources of one of our favorite scents and flavors.

So where do these vanilla alternatives come from? Here are the most interesting sources:

2. Vanilla scent and flavoring from cow poo

Vanillin use for fragrance or flavoring can be produced from the lignin in cow dung! Yes, you read that correctly. COW POO! In fact the Japanese researcher, Mayu Yamamoto, won an Ig Nobel prize in chemistry for this research in 2007. This process may sound like an unappealing source, but it’s important to consider that if this source of vanillin becomes widespread, it will decrease greenhouse gas emissions released by cow poo. As both a vegan and an environmental chemist I am a bit torn by this, but I am going to lean towards the greenhouse gas reduction. After all, anything that can positively impact our environment will also positively impact other animals.

3. Vanilla flavor from beaver bums

This one is probably my favorite, or least favorite, depending on how I look at it. Vanilla flavors can come from castoreum. Most popular articles define castoreum as the goo released from the castor sacs (similar to anal glands) of a beaver. Of course it’s a bit more than that. Castoreum is extracted not only from the secreted goo, but from the dried castor sacs themselves! Here’s a research article on castoreum if you’re interested. This not so appetizing sounding stuff is not only used for vanilla flavoring but is used to enhance raspberry and strawberry flavors as well. Vegans may be interested to know that this extract is labelled as “natural flavoring”¯ in most ingredients lists.

Other artificial vanilla extracts:


Most artificial vanillin comes from two sources:

  • lignin
  • guaiacol

Lignin is an important cellular component in plants, and it is typically chemically derived from wood and paper pulp industries. As I mentioned earlier, it’s also in cow poo, which makes sense given their plant-based diet. Guaiacol is a byproduct when the lignin in wood is burned. There seems to be a lot of misleading information about guaicol in a lot of food articles. Yes, it is a petroleum precursor, but it is still a natural product and is not a petroleum byproduct.

Vanillin can also be derived from:

  • glycosides in pine sap, which was the first method of vanillin extraction discovered back in 1874
  • eugenol, which is an essential oil extract of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil and bay leaves

Food for thought

Now don’t you wish that ingredients were listed like this? I do want to point out that the labeling of vanilla as “artificial”¯ or “natural”¯ is very confusing depending on the laws of your country and the wordplay of the product marketing. If you’re primarily concerned about it being “artificial” or “natural” then I highly recommend you read this article by yours truly. If you are vegan and are concerned about where it comes from then you should contact the manufacturer.

Does real vanilla extract taste better?

A number of people have mentioned to me that real vanilla extract from vanilla beans tastes better than its alternatives, so I thought I would add this section. It’s quite possible that the reason real vanilla extract tastes better is because it contains MANY other chemical compounds (e.g. vanillic acid and hydroxybenzoic acid) that produce flavor in addition to vanillin. It’s just that vanillin is the main compound found in vanilla bean extracts. Here’s a research article comparing these flavor compounds in different beans if you’re interested.

How to make your own vanilla extract!

There’s a lot of interesting grossness in this post, so here’s something nice. A recipe for a most delicious real vanilla extract! Thanks to my roommate, Chris Rowlinson, for sharing this recipe with us!

This post originally appeared on Chemicals Are Your Friends.

Like the cow, beaver and Robonilla illustrations? Check out Chemicals Are Your Friend’s house artist, Mike Ellis and his homepage!

Illustrations are ©Chemicals Are Your Friends (vanilla recipe was slightly modified by Care2)

Interested in more on the history and chemistry of vanillin? Check out this Royal Society of Chemistry podcast and transcript.


Read more: All recipes, Conscious Consumer, Food

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Dorea Reeser, Ph.D.

Dorea Reeser recently acquired a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry at the University of Toronto and is currently embarking on a brief journey in an Environmental Visual Communications Program at the Royal Ontario Museum. Her academic research focused on studying chemical reactions at water surfaces, and how the chemical and physical properties at the air-water interface influence these reactions and the release of important trace gases into the troposphere. She combines her creative and scientific sides with her passion for presenting science, whether it’s at a scientific conference, in the classroom, at an outreach event, at a social outing, on paper or in a video. She is the founder of a new outreach project called Chemicals Are Your Friends, co-host of the Collapsed Wavefunction podcast, an invited guest blogger for the Scientific American, and a team member of Story Science, the winners of the Scientific American Iron Egghead Video Contest. Follow on Twitter @ChemicalFriends @DrDorea

also by Dorea Reeser, Ph.D.


+ add your own
5:48AM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

I've been making my own using real vanilla beans and vodka for years. I'll give a pass on cow poo and beaver bum flavouring.

6:23AM PDT on Jun 6, 2014

Thank you :)

9:16PM PDT on Jun 5, 2014

Great suggestion. Thanks.

5:07PM PDT on Jun 4, 2014

Thank you

4:07PM PDT on Jun 4, 2014

Thank you for sharing.

11:25AM PDT on Jun 4, 2014


7:04AM PDT on Jun 4, 2014

Love vanilla.

6:50AM PDT on Jun 4, 2014


5:58AM PDT on Jun 4, 2014

r they serious ? o.O cow poo ???

5:52AM PDT on Jun 4, 2014


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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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