This post is for informational purposes only and is not to be used as medical advice.
Vanilla extract is used in just about every dessert. It not only adds a rich flavour itself, but it enhances many other flavours within a recipe. Is it safe to consume on a gluten-free diet? Read this article to find out.
Vanilla extract is a popular additive to many dessert recipes. It has a wonderful warm and sweet flavour all on it's own, and it also enhances other flavours quite well. But is it gluten-free? Let's learn more about vanilla extract and find out.
What is Vanilla Extract made of?
Pure vanilla extract is made by steeping vanilla beans in some form of clear alcohol. Over time (typically several months), the alcohol extracts the flavour from the vanilla beans to produce vanilla extract. By FDA standards, this alcohol must be at least 35% proof. (Source)
Vanilla extract is typically made from vodka, but you could use rum or bourbon too. You may have heard of "Bourbon Vanilla Extract". This may or may not be made from bourbon liquor, as it is likely made from Madagascar vanilla beans, specifically from the island of Réunion, which was once called Ile Bourbon. (Source)
The potential problem with vanilla extract is that it contains these alcohols. Most spirits are derived from a mixture of grain, often containing wheat (= gluten!).
The important piece to note here is that most alcohols being used in vanilla extract will be distilled. Distillation is a process where the alcohol-to-be is fermented, boiled, and syphoned. During boiling, the alcohol is volatile and rises to the surface to be collected.
Proteins (including any gluten from the grains) are heavy and not volatile, therefore sinking to the bottom of the vat and not making it into the final product. From this process, distilled alcohols, even from gluten-containing grains, are determined to be gluten-free. Read more about distillation from gluten.org.
Pure vs. Artificial Vanilla Extract
There are two main types of vanilla extract you'll see at the store: pure and artificial. Pure vanilla extract is made with the above method of steeping real vanilla beans in alcohol to extract the flavour. By FDA definition, pure vanilla extract can be flavoured by only vanilla beans and nothing else. (Source)
Artificial or imitation vanilla extract is made from artificial flavours to emulate a similar vanilla taste. If you've ever smelled it though, you'll know that artificial vanilla extract is way stronger in smell, but weaker in true vanilla flavour.
Ingredients typically include vanillin, a naturally occurring chemical compound from vanilla beans, just made synthetically and much cheaper. Other ingredients could be water, propylene glycol (an alcohol added to maintain moisture), caramel colour, and other things you've never heard of.
You may also come across vanilla bean paste, which is a thick, honey-like consistency paste that is a combination of pure vanilla extract with specks of vanilla beans. It is very concentrated in flavour, so you only need a little bit in a recipe, however it can be quite pricy from $15-$40 for a 4 oz (118ml) bottle.
Bakers will argue when is the best time to use pure vs. imitation vanilla extract, but it really comes down to personal preference and budget. As you'll notice in the store, pure vanilla extract is much more expensive than imitation, and often comes in a smaller bottle.
Why is Pure Vanilla Extract so expensive?
Pure vanilla extract will run you about $10-$15 for 2 oz (60ml) bottle, whereas imitation vanilla extract can cost just $3-$5 for bottles that are double or triple the size.
The reason behind the high price tag of pure vanilla extract is due to the vanilla beans themselves. Vanilla beans are grown from a variety of orchid plant that thrives in hot climates. Over 80% of the world's vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar, with others thriving in Mexico or Tahiti.
Because of the limited area, vanilla plants are highly susceptible to fluctuations in weather and local conditions. Vanilla bean harvesting is one of the most labour-intensive plants in the world, resulting in its crop price also being one of the highest in the world, second only to saffron. (Source)
In stores and online, real vanilla beans will cost about $3-$5 each. When making pure vanilla extract, more beans means a more concentrated flavour. Not to mention the time that is required for vanilla extract to steep and, well, extract. All of this is reflected in the prices of pure vanilla extract, but nearly any baker will tell you that the flavour is worth it.
The Final Verdict: Is Vanilla Extract Gluten-Free?
Based on the above research, it is safe to say that pure vanilla extract is gluten-free.
Just like you would be fine to drink variations of distilled alcohol such as vodka, rum, and brandy, you are good to consume pure vanilla extract containing such distilled alcohol on a gluten-free diet.
Imitation or artificial vanilla extract is safe in general for those on a gluten-free diet.
Some people have cited concerns over the ingredient caramel colour, however this has been established to be gluten-free (at least in North America) by beyondceliac.org.
So yes! Go ahead and flavour your desserts with delicious vanilla extract. Both pure and imitation vanilla extract are safe to consume on a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-Free Vanilla Extract Brands
If you are concerned, please always check the label or visit the company website to confirm the ingredients in a product. Here are some popular brands of vanilla extract that are safe to consume on a gluten-free diet:
- Neilsen-Massey (Certified Gluten-Free)
- Simply Organic
- Rodelle (States gluten-free on the website)
- Great Value
- Watkins (States gluten-free on the website)
- President's Choice
- President's Choice Black Label Madagascar Vanilla
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