It’s the holiday baking season, which means a lot of vanilla extract is moving through the stream of commerce. So, just what is vanilla extract, anyway?
Vanilla extract is made from vanilla beans. Vanilla beans do not grow on a vanilla bush the way cocoa beans grow on a cocoa bush. Vanilla beans grow on a pretty tropical flowering plant, the flower of which is called…an orchid. Vanilla beans are orchid seeds. The vanilla bean orchid plant is native to Mexico and Cortes took it back to Spain with him along with chocolate. Chocolate and vanilla (and corn and tomatoes) are as American as apple pie.
Before FDA, people made vanilla extract by sticking vanilla beans into the liquid of fermented potatoes, corn, and other things found lying around the Americas. Liquefied fermenting potatoes, corn, etc., create ethanol, known in Europe as vodka. Take three vanilla beans and one cup of vodka, stuff it all in a glass jar with a tight lid, shake it around, and wait 2 months. Voila! Vanilla extract. When you start running low, add more vodka. If you want to sell it for thousands of dollars an ounce, call it “Artisanal Vodka-Infused Mexican Orchid Seed Reduction.”
Now back to FDA. It says vanilla beans are “the properly cured and dried fruit pods of Vanilla planifolia Andrews and of Vanilla tahitensis Moore.” FDA says “[v]anilla extract is the solution in aqueous ethyl alcohol of the sapid and odorous principles extractable from vanilla beans.” Sapid means tasty and odorous means smelly. At least 35 percent of the liquid must be alcohol. At least one part per gallon must be vanilla.
Less than 35 percent alcohol and your product is merely “vanilla flavoring.” More than two parts per gallon of vanilla and your product is “concentrated” vanilla extract. Then there is “vanilla powder,” ground up vanilla beans to which you are permitted to add sugar, food starch, gum acacia, and corn syrup. You can even add “anti-caking” ingredients, none of which you would ever eat voluntarily because they are also known as “talcum powder.”
Digging deeper, there are rules about vanilla-vanillin extract, flavoring, and powder, all of which are the same as the above except you can add 1 ounce of “vanillin.” FDA does not define “vanillin” but Wikipedia does: “It is the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean. It is also found in roasted coffee and the Chinese red pine.” The last bit is a little jarring.
All of this assumes that you know how to weigh your vanilla beans, which is more complicated than you might think. FDA consulted both the National Archives and the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC) and shares that a “unit weight of vanilla beans means, in the case of vanilla beans containing not more than 25 percent moisture, 13.35 ounces of such beans; and, in the case of vanilla beans containing more than 25 percent moisture, it means the weight of such beans equivalent in content of moisture-free vanilla-bean solids to 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans containing 25 percent moisture. (For example, one unit weight of vanilla beans containing 33.25 percent moisture amounts to 15 ounces.) The moisture content of vanilla beans is determined by the method prescribed in “Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists,” 13th Ed. (1980), sections 7.004 and 7.005, which is incorporated by reference, except that the toluene used is blended with 20 percent by volume of benzene and the total distillation time is 4 hours.
Copies of the material incorporated by reference may be obtained from the AOAC INTERNATIONAL, 481 North Frederick Ave., suite 500, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, or may be examined at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For information on the availability of this material at NARA, call 202-741-6030, or click here.
If you are the careful type and want the National Archives or the Association of Official Analytical Chemists to weigh your vanilla beans for you, make sure your “pods are chopped into pieces approximately 1/4-inch in longest dimension, using care to avoid moisture change.”
The good news is that just four hundred years after Cortes introduced Spain to the sapid and odorous seed of the flowering orchid plant, in 1977, FDA declared vanilla extract, provided it meets all the requirements above, to be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS).
Kim Egan is Partner in the firm DLA Piper LLP