The vanilla bean demand dilemma
Vanilla scent and flavoring from cow poo
Vanilla flavor from beaver bums
Other artificial vanilla extracts
Food for thought
Does real vanilla extract taste better?
How to make your own vanilla extract!
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.
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
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. You should also sign this petition for a much improved ingredient labeling like the mentioned above!
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.
Illustrations are © Chemicals Are Your Friends
Interested in more on the history and chemistry of vanillin? Check out this Royal Society of Chemistry podcast and transcript.