Pure vanilla extract is commercially created by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and ethyl alcohol, or you can make your own with vanilla bean pods and vodka (or any neutral-flavored liquor).
In contrast, “an extract labeled ‘vanilla flavoring’ is typically made from a combination of artificial and natural ingredients,” says Kate Thrane, a Minnesota-based recipe developerin an email interview.
And those “natural” ingredients listed on the label may not actually include the vanilla bean at all, adds Thrane.
The search for vanilla flavoring began in the late 1800s when scientists sought to understand the rare and expensive vanilla bean — and its extract — at a molecular level.
In 1858, French biochemist Nicolas-Theodore Gobley crystallized vanilla extract and discovered vanillin, one of 250 compounds that comprise natural vanilla. “Vanillin is a phenolic aldehyde compound that gives vanilla its ‘vanilla’ flavor,” says Thrane.
In 1874, German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarman determined the molecular structure of vanillin. Then they recreated it, using not the vanilla bean but coniferin — a component of pine bark. And with the advent of synthetic vanillin came an entire industry devoted to manufacturing artificial vanilla flavoring.
“Vanilla flavoring is less expensive than actual vanilla extract because it is now mass-produced and contains no pure vanilla extract,” Thrane says.
Artificial vanilla flavoring, sold as vanilla essence, imitation vanilla flavor or artificial vanilla extract, can be created out of chemical compounds in clove oil, or from the lignin found in plants, cow manure and wood pulp.
Currently, about 15 percent of artificial vanilla flavoring is made from ligninwhile around 85 percent of the world’s vanillin is made from guaiacol, which comes from petrochemicals. If you’ve ever seen firewood that is charred to form black creosote, then you’ve seen guaiacol. Guaiacol is one of three chemicals found in creosote. With the addition of caramel coloring and flavors such as cocoa or tea extracts, and dilution with alcohol or propylene glycol, a substance resembling vanilla extract is concocted and sold.
There is another, more sustainable way that vanilla extract is made. This method just may not seem that palatable.