Vanilla Extract vs. Imitation Vanilla: Does It Matter What You Buy?

We compare flavor, production, and cost differences to see if vanilla extract is worth it.

Published Sept. 16, 2022.

Vanilla extract is an evocative flavoring; adding depth to everything from chocolate chip cookies to carrot cake. It's complex, transportive, and anything but boring.

But dang, is it expensive. 

When we last reviewed vanilla we paid up to $6.19 an ounce for a pure extract and down to $0.12 an ounce for an imitation extract. We’re paying more for everything at the supermarket right now. Is extract worth the cost or will imitation do?

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What is “real” vanilla?

“Real” vanilla is made from vanilla beans that have been soaked in alcohol to create vanilla extract (we also have a recipe for homemade vanilla extract). That skinny, glossy, dark brown vanilla bean is the cured seed pod of an orchid. In order to produce seed pods outside of their native Mexico, the orchids must be individually hand-pollinated (the one kind of tiny bee that travels down the plants' narrow blooms to pollinate them doesn't exist elsewhere).

Eighty percent of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar, off the southeastern coast of Africa. In 2017, Cyclone Enawo wiped out 30 percent of the crop. Prices skyrocketed. They’ve since leveled off—not that it feels that way.

Just 1 percent of the world’s vanilla flavoring is “real.” The rest is imitation. 

What is imitation vanilla?

Imitation vanilla is made from vanillin (the primary flavor component of vanilla). Vanillin is manufactured from a substance called guaiacol. Most of the world’s guaiacol supply comes from petroleum.

The vanillin is diluted with a liquid, typically alcohol or propylene glycol. Some producers add other flavorings such as cocoa or tea extracts for complexity. Caramel coloring is common, to make it resemble extract.

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Is there a flavor difference between vanilla extract and imitation vanilla? 

Our tasters could not tell the difference between vanilla extract and imitation vanilla in a taste test of both Chewy Sugar Cookies and Classic Vanilla Pudding

We interviewed Bill Carroll, adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University, who wasn’t surprised by the results. Vanillin synthesized in a lab is identical at the molecular level to vanillin derived from an orchid.

There are other flavor factors to consider, though. 

  • Imitation vanilla is stronger. Our tasters appreciated the pure, singular vanilla flavor of several of the imitation vanillas. We had a lab test the vanillin levels of the 10 products we reviewed: seven extracts and three imitations. The imitations had an average of 15 times more vanillin than the extracts. 
  • Vanilla extract is more complex. The imitations may have supercharged vanilla flavor but the extracts have more going on. Vanillin is only one of the hundreds of flavor volatiles found in pure vanilla extract. The added complexity is mostly a good thing, according to our tasting panel. Beautiful floral, woodsy, and oaky flavors rounded out some products. A few had less desirable notes (think banana and cotton candy). That said, many of these flavor volatiles will burn off in the oven, so if you want to use your extract where it has the most effect, save it for uncooked (or gently cooked) applications such as ice cream or panna cotta.
  • Vanilla extract can be boozy, which was divisive. Vanilla extract by law must be 35 percent alcohol. A few of the extracts were overwhelmingly boozy for some of our tasters. We suggest sticking to the extracts at the top of our recommendations for a more balanced flavor. Some tasters avoid alcohol altogether. Simply Organic Non-alcoholic Vanilla Flavoring is our top recommendation for the booze-free crowd. 
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Does it matter which one you buy?

It depends—which style is right for you is a personal choice based on price, source (plants versus petroleum), and the flavor factors we’ve laid out here. Extract versus imitation is only one question in this realm. 

We’ve written a guide, Vanilla 101, with everything we’ve learned over the years. Check out it for more on this fascinating subject.

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