Imitation vs. Pure Vanilla

Vanilla: one of the most popular flavors for sweets on the market (though I prefer chocolate). When walking through the grocery, you will see both pure natural vanilla extract, and imitation vanilla extract – my question is, which is better? Asking a serious baker this question would result in a lecture about how much better natural vanilla products are. Honestly, before doing some research on this topic, I had no clue there were so many differences between imitation and natural vanillas. All I knew is that my family has never had imitation vanilla in our pantry because apparently it just really sucks a whole bunch. In my research I found out a lot about the differences in how natural and synthetic vanilla are produced and began to agree with my family in buying natural.

Most everything we eat is composed of chemicals and made with bunches of chemistry. Even the pure, natural vanilla extract is made by the use of chemicals. So, lets discuss the pure natural vanilla extract first. Basically, vanilla comes from vanilla beans that grow on a vine and look similar to green beans. These little vanilla beans are picked and shipped to a manufacturer where they are soaked in aqueous ethyl alcohol and water. This process of soaking extracts the vanilla flavor from the actual bean. According to the FDA, the minimum standard percent of alcohol that can be present in pure vanilla extract is 35%. For example, McCormick’s Pure Vanilla Extract in comprised of 41% alcohol. After the soaking process is completed, the result is a dark brown liquid, which is what is found in the bottle. This pure vanilla is usually around 3-4 dollars per gram, which is an outrageous price for a bit of flavoring (more expensive than gasoline).

Pure Vanilla



This specific McCormick Vanilla uses 100% Madagascar Bourbon in its’ making. 2.0 fluid ounces of this product cost around $5.00. This high price for such a small product is due to how difficult it is to grow and harvest the vanilla, considering the beans can only grow in tropical countries.



On the other hand there is imitation vanilla extract. This has a much, much more reasonable price of around only 30 cents per ounce. This vanilla flavor however, not only has many more useless ingredients, but contains no vanilla bean whatsoever.Imitation Vanilla

Compare the ingredients of McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract:

(Vanilla Bean Extractives In Water and Alcohol (41%))

and the ingredients of McCormick Imitation Vanilla Extract:

(Water, Alcohol (26%), Natural Flavorings (Including Extractives of Cocoa and Extractives of Tea), Vanillin and Other Natural Flavoring, Corn Syrup, and Caramel Color))

Notice the underlined portions of these ingredients. The Imitation Vanilla Extract includes only “Vanillin and Other Natural Flavorings”. Vanillin is the imitation flavoring (replacing actual vanilla bean), that can be made in countless different ways. It can be created from clove oil or pinesap, or even wood byproducts . . . ew. Vanillin can be produced naturally as well, but for the cheap price of Imitation Vanilla, it will be made in the cheapest way possible. For future references, clear vanilla extract is always unnatural.

Overall, if I am going to spend my time attempting to cook some tasty dessert, I will want to use the best products I can. I personally haven’t tasted food containing both Imitation and Pure Vanilla to compare, but most cooks have. A group of cooks from Cook’s Illustrated decided to taste the flavor of both imitation and natural vanillas in something much simpler than a cake – milk. Adding the different vanillas to milk created a way to taste just the flavor of the actual vanilla product, not what it tastes like combined with other ingredients. This group decided that the pure vanilla tasted much better . . . and I trust them. If I were to choose one or the other, I would most definitely pick the Pure Vanilla Extract over the Imitation Vanilla Extract. Why spend your money on a knock-off when you can get the real thing?

Cameron Mader


Coon. Jason. “The Difference Between Pure and Imitation Vanilla.” Bulk Natural Foods. 2009. Web. 30 November 2015.

McCormick. “Vanilla Flavor – Premium.” and “Extra Rich Pure Vanilla Extract.” McCormick & Company Inc. 2015. 30 November 2015. and

Cook’s Illustrated. “Vanilla Extract.” Cook’s Illustrated. American’s Test Kitchen. 2015. 30 November 2015.

FDA. “Food and Drugs.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 2015. 30 November 2015.


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