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Real Vanilla vs. Imitation: Results from my experiment

  • l
  • La Dolce Vita May 9, 2005 06:16 PM

A few weeks ago, somebody suggested that willing Chowhounds replicate the vanilla taste test from Cook’s Illustrated. Cook’s Illustrated investigated whether people could distinguish the difference between real vanilla and artificial vanilla (also called vanillin). Cook’s found that when it comes to baked goods, tasters preferred vanillin. In things like custards, real vanilla was the winner.

I did my own version of this test over the weekend. I used Beranbaum’s pound cake recipe from “Cake Bible.” I made one pound cake with pure Tahitian vanilla extract. The brand I used was Nielsen-Massey, which cost about $15 for a 4-oz bottle. I made another pound cake with vanillin, which I bought from Smart & Final for about $4 per quart.

Aside from the vanilla-vanillin variable, I tried to keep all other variables constant. I used one mixer and two work bowls, cleaning and drying the beater before mixing next batch of batter. I dipped from the same batch of flour, sugar, beaten egg, etc. I weighed everything on a scale, timed the mixer so that each batch was beaten for the same amount of time at the same speed, and I baked the cakes side-by-side in identical pans. Okay, I know this sounds picky, but I wanted to be sure I was controlling the variables properly so that I didn’t taint the results. I guess all that time in graduate school has really paid off! :)

I served the cakes to family and friends. I didn’t tell them which was which until after the votes were in.

The difference between the two cakes was not huge, but it was noticeable. Three out of the four adults (including me) preferred the vanillin cake.

To my palate, the vanillin cake tasted and smelled more vanilla-y. I’m convinced that for baked goods, vanillin is the way to go. It seems to hold up better after a stint in the oven, and it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than the pure stuff. But, if I were making, say, a pudding or a custard, I would use real vanilla extract or a vanilla pod because I think pure vanilla would shine under those circumstances.

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  1. Excellent report, LDV! Thanks for the great post!

    3 Replies
    1. re: Dorothy

      yes, thanks for that!

      pardon my ignorance, but can someone please tell me what vanillin *is*? where does it come from?

      are there any drawbacks to using vanillin?

      1. re: rachel
        l
        La Dolce Vita

        Quoting from the November-December 2003 issue of Cook's Illustrated:

        "Although more than 400 chemical compounds contribute to the overall profile of vanilla flavor, the dominant, most recognizable compound is vanillin, which is largely responsible for vanilla's trademark sweet, creamy, fruity, and floral aroma and flavor. Vanillin occurs in the seed pods of the tropical climbing vine vanilla planifolia, a member of the orchid family, when the pods are cured. Curing involves repeated sweating and drying of the beans, during which time they ferment and develop vanillin. But cured beans are not the only source of vanillin. The compound can also be synthesized from eugenol (an essential oil in cloves) or, less typically, from lignin (a wood pulp byproduct of the paper-manufacturing process). On the molecular level, this synthetic vanillin is indistinguisable from natural vanillin....And compared with natural vanillin, synthetic vanillin is cheap to manufacture." (p. 27)

        I can't think of any drawbacks to using vanillin, unless, of course, you really prefer the flavor of pure vanilla extract.

        It's interesting to note that "artifical vanilla" in the form of vanillin is really not artificial, since it does occur naturally in vanilla beans when they are cured. "Synthesized" or perhaps "distilled" might be better words. I like the fact that this discussion about vanilla calls into question the distinction between "natural" and "artificial"---two words which I think often create misleading impressions about quality and health benefits. Ah, but now that's bringing out the semanticist in me, so I'll stop here.

        1. re: rachel

          Dolce, thanks for doing that! Science geeks unite. :)

          I've linked to a nice site below. Vanillin is naturally occuring in vanilla beans, and they learned how to make it synthetically a long long time ago. It's the major flavor component in real vanilla, but can't duplicate the taste because it's lacking all the other trace compounds in real vanilla beans. It definitely won't hurt you, the taste is the issue.

          Link: http://www.vanilla.com/html/facts-ext...

      2. You're my kind of 'food nerd' (a very high compliment!).

        1. t
          TrishUntrapped

          A few years ago when the price of real vanilla went sky high I did the same experiment (with whipped cream and butter cookies) and had same results as you did.

          I posted on Chowhound and other boards about this and was pretty much dismissed by "serious" cooks.

          I highly recommend the Watkins brand of double strength artificial vanilla. It has a very smooth and fragrant flavor, and is actually a quality product.

          2 Replies
          1. re: TrishUntrapped

            trish, i just wanted to let you know that i still remember your earlier report. i thought it was a very useful report (as is this one). it is good to revisit these issues every couple of years. your post did not go into the void!

            1. re: queue
              t
              TrishUntrapped

              Thank you Queue!

          2. OMG, you are my hero(ine)! So glad that you replicated this experiment and got similar results to CI. Helps me to have a little more faith in their test lab results.

            Your conclusion makes me think about how many extracts and oils can lose their essence w/ heat application, so perhaps vanillin holds up better when baking something w/ alot of flour and dry ingredients.

            BTW, as having gone through grad school myself, I quite appreciated your "methods" section. If I were on your committee, I'd pass you w/ flying colors!

            One question though: if you had increased the amount of real vanilla extract, do you think you might have preferred that over the vanillin? That may be for study 2...

            11 Replies
            1. re: Carb Lover

              Interesting 'hypothesis' for study #2 Carb Lover...

              (I always double the amount of vanilla when baking.)

              1. re: Carb Lover

                I too always ratchet up the amount of vanilla in baking, usually about double but sometimes even more. This seems to work especially well in rolled sugar christmas cookies (I use the Roll Cookies recipe from the old Joy of Cooking), for which I always get raves on taste despite the gaudy decorations. Since I love vanilla I can't bring myself to use the other stuff, no matter how irrational this position might be.

                I am no scientist but (British) friends of mine, who have looked into a lot of food-related issues especially as they pertain to children, say that vanillin is bad for you...I can't remember why though.

                1. re: LindaMc

                  Yes, even though I appreciate and believe these results to be true, I need to research more about vanillin myself to trust that it's totally natural and safe. I know that when I taste and smell both real and imitation, the real has more of a natural perfume and flavor. I don't do much baking, so the cost of real extract isn't much concern. For those who go through alot of vanilla, then I can see how vanillin might be a good option.

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    Can you do a favor and post those results when you do your research? I (the rabid avoider of High Fructose Corn Syrup) noticed on a couple of bottles of imitation vanilla that this ingredient was on the label - I find that problematic but would love to know what you find out.

                    I'll probably end up sticking with the real stuff the more I think about it, no matter the results (not because of vanilla snobbery but because the jury is still out on the vanillan) - but I am really glad to know it turned out this way.

                    Then at the same time in such small quantities I wonder if it matters? Hmmmm

                    1. re: krissywats

                      If vanillin is bad for you, then you'd better stop using natural vanilla, since vanillin is created during the curing process of the vanilla bean. It's what makes it taste like vanilla. Is there a chemist in the house? Are there different types of vanillin? If a molecule is chemically identical to another molecule, it doesn't matter if it was made in a plant or in a test tube, they are the same. Would you say water (distilled) out of a stream is "natural" while water vapor created by a hydrogen fuel cell is "synthetic?"

                      " The plant (Vanilla planifolia) is a tropical orchid which grows as a vine and needs the support of trees or poles whereupon it can reach a height of about 5 metres. The flowers have a narrow bell surrounded by thin petals which develop slowly over several months into long narow pods about 12-15 cm long. Vanilla needs a process of curing similar to cacao to develop its characteristic aroma, for example the pods may be picked green then sun dried, oven heated or cured in hot water.
                      During the curing process the flavour precursors, which are glucosides, are broken down into vanillin and glucose and some other minor aromatic substances.
                      Vanilla extract is made by cutting the beans into small pieces and soaking in successive quantities of hot 65-70% alcohol. Many commercial vanilla extracts are now actually blends from natural and synthetic vanillin."

                      1. re: Jess

                        That may be - but I'm wary of synthetically created items that tout themselves as 'just like the real thing'. For instance, Splenda says they are made from 'real sugar' but is actually a chlorinated sugar.

                        Most sites I found about the safety of vanillin said that there was 'no significant risk' - which, unfortunately isn't the same as 'no risk'. Vanillin itself may be fine but from what I'm reading the issue comes from what is mixed in before it's presented to the consumer.

                        For instance, the edensoy people won't switch to vanillin (at a 5-fold cost risk to themselves) because of the following:

                        "Natural Vanilla Flavor with Other Natural Flavors (WONF) is a blend of a small amount of pure vanilla extract and flavor ingredients in a wide variety of chemical carriers. Eden has never received full disclosure from any manufacturer as to all the synthetic and/or toxic ingredients in our attempts to learn their composition. They are allowed to keep it secret saying it's proprietary information."
                        (http://www.allorganiclinks.com/news/a...
                        )
                        There seems to be a seriously blurry line between Imitation Vanillas and Vanillin and many other names used for the not pure stuff and a lack of full disclosure on these. I find that slightly troubling.

                        Jury still out, though.

                        1. re: krissywats

                          Yes, that is troubling if they don't know what else is in there to fake the other trace flavors-- but I want to make sure people understand the distinction between a case like sugar and splenda, which are chemically different (even though splenda is derived from sugar) and vanillin from vanilla beans and vanillin from other sources, which are chemically identical.

                          Chemically identical molecules behave the same no matter where they came from, and chemically distinct molecules do not.

                          1. re: Jess

                            Thanks for that - makes sense. I'm going to keep reading.

                            As ScienceWatchDog mentioned, I did not notice that vanilla in mass quantities is a problem (unless you are an alcoholic) on many of the websites I read - but as I said, I'm still reading. And I'm still a bit confused by some of the terms: ethyl vanillan as opposed to methyl vanillan. I know that inhaled vanillin is really bad.

                            And yes ScienceWatchdog, I did know that about nutmeg in large quantities is a hallucinogen. Why do you think they call me the Crazy Nutmeg Lady?

                          2. re: krissywats
                            s
                            ScienceWatchdog

                            >>Most sites I found about the safety of vanillin
                            >>said that there was 'no significant risk' - which,
                            >>unfortunately isn't the same as 'no risk'

                            Which means that there hasn't been signficant risks found by ingesting large quantities over relatively short periods of time (compared to a lifetime). Is the same true for natural vanilla? Can you say for sure that vanilla is safe?

                            As an unrelated aside, remember that nutmeg can be toxic (or hallucinogenic) in large doses (1+ pods).

                            1. re: krissywats

                              "No significant risk" is science speak, so if you're reading true scientific studies or articles, then that's expected. I would be more suspicious if someone definitively said "no risk".

                              I agree that the info on vanilla/vanillin is murky, based on the very minimal googling I've done. I think there's both artificial and natural vanillin, so that distinction is important. Need to do more research on that though...

                              We can debate about safety (on all kinds of foodstuffs) til the cows come home, but what's clear to me is that I want to support responsible vanilla bean farmers/growers in the best way possible, and I think buying the real stuff is the best way to that end. And I do know that I like the taste and smell of the real stuff straight from the bottle better than the imitation.

                              Linked a website that I quite like. Full disclosure: I partly like the company b/c it's based in my town. They sell vanilla beans and extract so their info will be biased in that regard. I found the "facts" and "awareness" sections to be of particular interest.

                              Link: http://www.vanilla.com/

                        2. re: Carb Lover

                          "Artificial vanilla flavoring is made from eugenol (derived from clove stem oil) or acid hydrolysis of lignin (wood pulp). This compound is mixed with real vanilla to make vanillin."

                          I'm kinda against eating anything that is made with wood pulp. And if worse comes to worst, I'll make my own vanilla extract:

                          Take 1/2 pint of cheap vodka
                          Pour out 1 ounce
                          Add 2 chopped vanilla beans
                          Recap and store in a dark place for 2-3 months
                          Shake occasionally
                          Filter as desired
                          Use just like commercial brands
                          Yum.

                    2. Awesome experiment. Thanks for sharing!

                      I thought I'd share too: I got Nielsen-Massey vanilla paste at Williams-Sonoma, of all places, for a little less than you paid ($11 for 4 oz.). I believe the pure vanilla extract is even cheaper.

                      The paste is wonderful for things like ice creams and custards, where it's nice to have the little vanilla bean flakes for aesthetic effect. Othwerwise, it's used in exactly the same way as regular extract, and in the same proportions.

                      1. Just chiming in to say 'thanks for this'. Glad to know they got it right and that we can all bake a little cheaper!!

                        1. So glad to read your results, I also read the report in Cooks Illustrated and began to bake with the artificial stuff but the food snob in me began to feel guilty?! Stupid or what??? Not like I don't spend enough already on my baking ingredients!!! I can comfortably say I will be back to using vanillin thanks to you!!

                          1. While your method was pretty good, I think that one variable wasn't tested. Natural vanillas from different parts of the world vary greatly in taste. Tahitian vanilla is different from Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla or Mexican vanilla. Most of the vanilla that is used in commercial products is Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla. Perhaps a comparison of a good brand of that style of vanilla extract with the vanillin used in this test would be in order here. Also, to be more complete, I think that you should compare a true (be careful, don't use the cheap stuff -- it could contain coumarin) Mexican vanilla extract with the vanillin used in your first test.

                            6 Replies
                            1. re: Nancy Berry
                              c
                              Caitlin McGrath

                              LDV didn't state the provenance of her Nielsen-Massey vanilla, but most N-M vanilla extract sold is Madagascar Bourbon (though they also produce Tahitian and Mexican, and an organic Bourbon Madagascar).

                              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                She did -- in the sentence before she gave the brand, she specified "pure Tahitian vanilla." I don't like Tahitian vanilla, so that caught my attention.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler
                                  c
                                  Caitlin McGrath

                                  Oops!

                              2. re: Nancy Berry

                                Exactly. Tahitian vanilla is much more delicate than Madagascar, and it doesn't stand up as well in high-heat applications such as baking. A head-to-head test between vanillin flavoring and Madagascar vanilla would have been more revealing.

                                I'm a big fan of Tahitian vanilla, but I would never consider using it for pound cake.

                                1. re: motts

                                  Since this thread has been resurrected, I'll chime in that after reading that CI article, I tried the supermarket brand of artificial vanilla flavoring (it was likely McCormick's) in the oatmeal cookies that were at the time part of my monthly baking. I noticed a clear difference, and not a good one. Threw out the fake stuff and went back to the national brand pure vanilla extract sold in the supermarket. As I recall, when I sniffed the bottle, the artificial flavoring had the unpleasant smell of a wood-pulp/paper mill, and the same odor permeated the kitchen while the cookies baked. This is probably a matter of individual taste bud and olfactory differences.

                                  1. re: greygarious

                                    The cookie shops in malls that bake on the premises use the pure extract and arrange ducting to spread the odors out into the mall, producing those seductive aromas.

                              3. Imitation Vanilla for $4.00 a quart?

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: Jim H.
                                  l
                                  La Dolce Vita

                                  Oops, I actually paid $2.99 for it. (I called Smart & Final to confirm the price.)

                                  1. re: La Dolce Vita

                                    Maybe I am paranoid, but I don't think I would use a vanilla that costs $3.00 a quart. Some of the $10.00 a pint Mexican stuff can do a lot of damage.

                                2. Also, Cooks Illustrated recommended McCormack Imitation Vanilla and the taste testers liked it best. It was a great article and I used that brand exclusively.