What Did I Smell?
March 29, 2014 6:14 PM   Subscribe

I opened a package of Nabisco Nilla Wafers and they smelled strongly of paint. What caused that?

Yesterday while rummaging through the pantry I came upon an unopened package of Nilla Wafers. I opened up the bag and grabbed a few cookies. I smelled paint, but it didn't occur to me the cookies were the source. I bit into a cookie and immediately knew they were stale. Then I realized the smell was coming from inside the bag. It smelled exactly like I had just opened a gallon of latex paint to paint a room in my house. It was so strong my daughter noticed it just walking into the room. As it turned out, the cookies were way past the "Best By" date, but I'm stumped as to what ingredient in a Nilla Wafer would smell like latex paint when it goes bad. The one I bit into tasted stale, but did not taste foul or rancid or anything like that.

Any ideas?
posted by COD to Food & Drink (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's possible that the formula for Nilla Wafers includes enough baking soda to make them overall alkaline.

Corn tortillas, when they're old but not moldy, start to smell strongly somewhere between latex paint and ammonia, because the lime (the mineral, calcium hydroxide, sibling to lye) works on the proteins in the corn and eventually breaks them down into ammonia and other compounds. The same thing happens with stale alkaline noodles - fresh ramen noodles, wonton noodles, etc.

I can only surmise that there's enough baking soda left in them after baking to start that breakdown process on the flour once enough moisture gets in.
posted by WasabiFlux at 6:22 PM on March 29, 2014

Does it smell like wall paint or oil paint? If oil paint, likely the oil in the cookies have gone rancid - rancid oil smells like oil paint. The main reason I buy little bottles of oil now, had to throw too much out. :/
posted by jenh at 7:39 PM on March 29, 2014

They're called "Nilla" wafers-- not 'Vanilla'-- because they don't contain vanilla (which is a natural extract containing more than 200 compounds), they instead contain synthetic vanilla, also known as vanillin or 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde.

I believe Nabisco did at one time use real vanilla, but replaced it with vanillin because that was so much cheaper, and then regulation caught up with them quite a bit later and they were forced to drop the "vanilla" from the name.

Vanllin, or 4-Hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde can, in the presence of water (I assume by "stale" you mean that the very hygroscopic cookies had absorbed moisture), in principle be hydrolyzed into 3 4-dihydroxy-benzaldehyde and methanol, each of which is an ingredient in some latex paints.

I say "in principle" because I don't know the specific conditions which drive that hydrolysis forward, but I bet one or both of those reaction products are what you and your daughter smelled.
posted by jamjam at 8:13 PM on March 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Thank you Chemists / Food Scientists of Mefi! This episode spurred an apparently long overdue cleaning out of the pantry.
posted by COD at 9:47 AM on March 31, 2014

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