I love vanilla. Especially the real kind made with vanilla beans. The imitation vanillas have a strong flavor with a bitter aftertaste. Real vanilla is smooth, robust, and absolutely perfect. I’ve even made my own vanilla extract before using vanilla beans and bourbon.
Imagine my surprise when one of my readers wrote to me asking me to decode a store-brand “100% Pure Vanilla Extract” label that contained [[DRAMATIC PAUSE]] corn syrup as an ingredient. First, I wanted to see how it was legally possible for a so-called “pure” extract to contain corn syrup. Then, I wanted to see which other brands of “pure” extract on my grocery store shelf contained other ingredients like corn syrup or sugar.
That’s how I found this week’s product: McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract.
Here’s what the manufacturer claims:
“McCormick Pure Vanilla derives its rich subtle flavor from the finest quality imported Vanilla Beans. A teaspoon of Pure Vanilla is a wonderful way to enhance the flavor of many foods. Vanilla is so versatile; it is one of the world’s most loved and tantalizing flavors.”
McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract: Ingredients
- Vanilla bean extractives in water,
- alcohol (35%),
- and corn syrup.
McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract: DECODED
First, it’s important to understand how true vanilla extract is made. To make it yourself, you only need two things: bourbon and vanilla beans. You cover the beans with the alcohol and let it sit for a few weeks. Then, you remove the beans. PRESTO: homemade pure vanilla extract!
With that in mind, the first two ingredients are expected: vanilla bean extractives in water, and alcohol (35%). We can get picky about the quality of extract that can be made from “extractives in water” rather than fresh, whole premium beans. But, all-in-all, the “extractives in water” are still real food.
No, what gives me pause is also what gives you pause: corn syrup.
How can a product labeled “pure” extract also contain an additive like corn syrup? Good question!
Turns out, the FDA labeling rules for what constitute a “pure” extract are simple. According to the FDA, the label “pure” means that the vanilla flavor comes only from the extractives of the vanilla bean. In other words, the vanilla flavor is not artificially created using wood pulp or beaver glands. Also, to be called “pure vanilla extract,” the FDA requires the product to have been made from at least 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon. More alcohol is fine, and often results in a much richer flavor. But it can be no less than 35% alcohol.
So, now that we know that “pure” doesn’t refer to the final product, but rather the vanilla flavor, we can ask why companies add corn syrup or sugar.
Once again, the answer is simple. It makes it taste better! Vanilla extract is the sort of thing that needs to mature, much like a fine whiskey. So, even after it’s made and bottled, it’s best if it sits for a couple of years to stabilize. The extra maturation helps the flavor become more full and less bitter. If a manufacturer wants to ship out product without that maturation process, they add a sweetener like corn syrup or sugar. The sweetener helps it stabilize more quickly in addition to rounding out the flavor so it’s robust without being bitter.
So, what lessons can you learn here?
Even in the world of “100% Pure” extracts, you need to read labels so that you’re not getting more than what you bargained for.
Here’s another interesting bit: you can’t count on the same brand label to always have the same ingredients. Guess how I know this?
I’ve got two bottles of McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract in front of me. Both have identical labels and packaging. Only one has corn syrup. The other has 41% alcohol and no corn syrup or other additives.
McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract: THE VERDICT
It’s a mixed bag! If the ingredients label shows corn syrup:
If the ingredients label shows only vanilla beans and alcohol:
So, what should you use instead?
Of course your first option should be to make your own homemade extract. It’s so easy and the flavor is out of this world. Plus, you can use premium quality organic whole vanilla beans and have a clean conscience while also being ridiculously thrifty. (That’s because making your own, even with expensive beans and liquor, is far cheaper than buying the real stuff at a grocery store.)
If you want a good store bought brand, I’ve enjoyed Simply Organic Pure Vanilla Extract before. It’s completely organic and contains no additives or sweeteners. It’s just vanilla beans and alcohol.
Want Your Labels Decoded?
In this series on Decoding Labels, I’m highlighting deceptive labeling practices, hidden ingredients, and more! If you’ve got a particular label pet-peeve you’d like me to share, please feel free to email me with your idea. It may just turn into a blog post!