Reader Joey asks: why do we need imitation vanilla extract, and where does it come from? Both very good questions. The reason we need imitation vanilla is because demand for vanilla flavor exceeds the total quantity of naturally-produced vanilla by something like 750%. So, if we didn’t have imitation vanilla extract, a typical $2 vanilla bean would cost about fifteen bucks. Which would make one heck of a pricey pot de crème, n’est-ce pas?
The main flavor compound in vanilla comes from the compound vanillin, though in a natural vanilla bean there are literally hundreds of other flavor compounds in the mix. Vanillin only makes up about 2% of the total weight of the bean.
Since it was brought to the attention of Europeans in the 1500’s, vanilla has always been very expensive stuff. So it isn’t surprising that imitation vanillin was one of the early feats of food science. It was isolated all the way back in 1858, and was synthesized from a material called eugenol, a component of plant essential oils, in the 1870’s. In the 1880’s, imitation vanilla extract made from clove oil was all the rage.
By roughly 1930 it was discovered that vanillin could be made from wood. Or rather, a specific component of wood called lignin. That lignin is a chemical precursor to vanillin is evidenced by the fact that wines, brandies and whiskeys aged in new oak barrels invariably take on vanilla notes as they age. Though I’m not absolutely sure, I believe it’s lactic acid bacteria that are responsible for breaking the lignin down and releasing the vanilla-like flavor.
Anyway, for quite a while vanillin was produced from the waste materials created by paper mills. Quite a bit of it still is. However over the last 30 or 40 years, food scientists have turned to another raw material for their vanillin, notably a compound called guaiacol which is extracted from wood resins.
But regardless of where it comes from, pure vanillin is just that: pure vanillin. It delivers a very strong vanilla-like flavor but few of the subtleties that come from a real vanilla bean.