Chillin’ With Vanillin: How to Beat the High Cost of Vanilla

Posted on 12 September 2018

If you can believe headlines these days, vanilla is nearly as expensive as silver. A cyclone in Madagascar last year put vanilla bean on the “endangered spices” list. Maybe we should now include vanilla extract in our homeowners’ policies.

But all is not lost. For those of us who swirl spoonfuls into our yogurt and pour it into our baking, there’s no need to cut back. It’s “vanillin,” the active flavor ingredient in vanilla, that we really love. “Vanilla extract” has other chemicals, too, but they have negligible taste and degrade when heated. We’re in it for the vanillin. And we can get it in “imitation vanilla.”

But why, Mr. Science, should we settle for “imitation”?

First, imitation vanilla has oodles more vanillin that vanilla extract does. In taste tests, imitation vanilla ties or wins against the fanciest stuff. For uncooked dishes, where the booziness of vanilla extract can make a difference, just add a touch of vodka and nobody will be the wiser.

Second, it doesn’t matter where vanillin comes from. Whether it’s produced in a manufacturing plant or inside a vanilla bean, all vanillin is identical: C8H8O3. Food historian Sarah Lohman puts it well when she writes that “atoms don’t remember their history—the synthesized vanillin has no relation to its source.”

So what’s all this fuss about vanillin? It’s more than a flavor; it’s a flavor enhancer. It makes chocolate more chocolatey and just about any sweet more luscious. I’ve long suspected that it’s a happy drug, and recently I found proof. A study in mice shows that simply sniffing vanillin relieves depression by boosting dopamine. (As my neuroscientist daughter says, it’s a great time to be a lab mouse.)

My husband grew up next door to the Baker’s Extract Company bottling plant in Springfield, Massachusetts. You’d think the family would get sick of the sweet aroma. But no, like the lab mice, they got a kick from the free-floating mood enhancer. His sister Chris would even pull herself up to the factory’s window ledges in order to get the strongest hit.

So save for college tuitions or retirement and choose imitation vanilla, preferably containing super-potent ethyl vanillin. Double or triple it in your recipes. I guarantee everyone will love it.

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