When vanilla isn't vanilla...
December 19, 2006 9:26 PM   Subscribe

I bought some Mexican vanilla at an import shop, but after some reading I'm sure that it's synthetic. Is there any way to tell if it's safe?

The label insists that it's natural vanilla extract, but this and this suggest it's synthetic (clear, cheap, low alcohol content). Since the label is misleading about the contents, what's the likelihood that it's telling the truth when it says "does not contain coumarin"?
Is there any way to find out if this brand (El Tampiqueño) is actually coumarin-free?
posted by jheiz to Food & Drink (8 answers total)
Most of the vanilla sold in Mexico is synthetic, though it doesn't all have coumarin in it. Telltale signs of the fake stuff: clear, or dark and murky (the real stuff is amber colored and translucent), low alcohol content (genuine vanilla extract contains at least 35% ethyl alcohol), laughably low price. Pure Mexican vanilla is available, but you're better off getting it in this country. Warning: it won't be cheap.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:09 PM on December 19, 2006

The FDA doesn't include that brand on its list of brands known to contain coumarin.

It is very probably synthetic, as you say, but, assuming you bought it at a store in the U.S., it shouldn't hurt you to use it in your cooking.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:09 PM on December 19, 2006

I think you're fine. El Tampiqueno is a well known brand - not the type to be messing around with coumarin. As cerebus19 points out in the FDA list, the list of coumarin vendors is actually a small, shady selection.
posted by vacapinta at 10:26 PM on December 19, 2006

dump your synthetic vanilla in the toilet and get real vanilla beans from a reputable source.
on a related side note, if you read fine print ingredients like i do, "vanilla" means real and "vanillin" means chemlab.
coumarin is a blood thinner, it's the same thing as the rat poison sold under the brand name "warfarin".
vanilla is the only commonly eaten foodstuff made from an orchid.
posted by bruce at 11:26 PM on December 19, 2006

Just a tiny quibble with your first source, to say that anything with real vanilla will get darker with age. It should start amber, but it can turn almost black with exposure to oxygen for very long, or just with age. (I buy a lot of vanilla for my business, and I use a vanilla bourbon bean and create my own oils (for nonedible items) and extract using vodka for edible.)

I can't speak to your specific brand, but I can almost guarantee you that a clear liquid is a synthetic vanilla.
posted by dejah420 at 11:47 PM on December 19, 2006

Vanilla is very interesting, and yes, it is an orchid.
posted by Savannah at 7:15 AM on December 20, 2006

Regarding synthetic vanilla, Cooks Illustrated found that in most items that have other flavors (cakes, cookies, etc.) it wasn't possible to tell the difference between real and synthetic. Their recommendation was to save the good stuff for foods where the vanilla flavor is front-and-center.
posted by cabingirl at 8:09 AM on December 20, 2006

Warfarin is not the same as coumarin. Coumarin is a precursor of warfarin. Both are blood thinners, but coumarin is MUCH less toxic. This being said, no coumarin for me for dinner.
posted by lalochezia at 1:33 PM on December 20, 2006

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