Vanilla Extract

Monday, 10 November 2008 | Tags:

One of the world's most popular flavours, vanilla's natural, sweet essence has been enjoyed for centuries and is widely used in beverages, pastries, confections, and other desserts. We pit pure against artificial to find out which takes the cake.

The Basics

  • Pure vanilla is the second-most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron.

  • There are different types of vanilla depending on which country it originates from:

    • 70-80% of the world’s vanilla comes from Madagascar (“Madagascar Bourbon”, named after the Bourbon Islands). Other vanilla producers include Indonesia, Mexico (spicy) and Tahiti (fruity).

    • The most common type of vanilla at the grocery store is Indonesian, which holds up really well in high temperatures.

    • Vanilla from Madagascar, also known as Bourbon (nothing to do with the whiskey), has a classic rich taste like vanilla ice cream.

    • Mexico’s spicy vanilla can add extra pizzazz to everything from meat to chocolate.

    • Tahiti’s sweet floral vanilla is great on fruit.

  • Vanilla extract is how most of us buy vanilla to be used in home baked treats.

  • Extract is produced by steeping the vanilla beans in an alcohol and water solution for several months, sometimes adding sugar. The result is a clear dark liquid with a rich, highly aromatic flavour.

  • The FDA requires that pure vanilla extract contains at least 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and 35% alcohol.

  • When buying vanilla extract, make sure it is labeled “pure”. The less expensive imitation vanilla extracts are made with synthetic vanilla (from glycoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers or from coal extracts) and have a bitter after taste.

  • Products labelled Vanilla Flavouring are a combination of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract.


We enlisted the palettes of restaurant critics to test these vanilla options in steamed milk, and also in a plain white cake:

  • Safeway Brand (artificial): 8¢ per teaspoon
  • Club House (artificial with 10% real vanilla): 27¢ per teaspoon
  • Safeway Brand (pure): 48¢ per teaspoon
  • Frontier Vanilla Flavour (pure with glycerin): 76¢ per teaspoon
  • Morton & Bassett (pure): $1.06 per teaspoon

Taste Test

  • We all found the glycerin-sweetened Frontier vanilla too sweet.

  • The Safeway artificial vanilla had a “barely there” taste.

  • Some testers liked the Morton & Bassett best in the milk test.

  • The Safeway pure vanilla had a little extra “oomph” over the others.


Whether sweetening steamed milk or baked in a cake, the perfect amount of vanilla flavour came from the Safeway pure vanilla extract.

Since we did this test a few years ago on the Shopping Bags, many new brands of vanilla have become available, including whole vanilla beans and organic, fair trade products. Though they may be more costly, if you’re a stickler for flavour, the organic products tend to be even more flavourful, but again, the flavours vary depending on where the vanilla beans are grown. Don’t be afraid to experiment. For some of the more expensive vanillas, consider sharing or trading with a friend so that you can both try two for the price of one!


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