Vanilla extract is a solution containing the flavor compound vanillin as the primary ingredient. Pure vanilla extract is made by macerating and percolating vanilla beans in a solution of ethyl alcohol and water. In the United States, in order for a vanilla extract to be called pure, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that the solution contains a minimum 35% of alcohol and 100g of vanilla beans per litre (13.35 ounces per gallon). Double and triple strength (up to 20-fold) vanilla extracts are available.
Vanilla extract is the most common form of vanilla used today. Mexican, Tahitian, Indonesian and Bourbon vanilla are the main varieties. Bourbon vanilla is named for the period when the island of Réunion was ruled by the Bourbon kings of France; it does not contain Bourbon whiskey.
Natural vanilla flavoring is derived from real vanilla beans with little to no alcohol. The maximum amount of alcohol that is usually present is only 2%-3%. Also on the market is imitation vanilla extract, a wood by-product usually made by soaking alcohol into wood which contains vanillin. The vanillin is then chemically treated to mimic the taste of natural vanilla.
As with many other preparations made from alcohol, such as perfumes, colognes, aftershaves, mouthwashes, cold preparations and other food flavorings, it is theoretically possible to become intoxicated by drinking large amounts of vanilla extract because of the alcohol mixed with it. There have been at least two documented cases. Adulterants such as coumarin, which is often found in vanilla extract, can cause sickness and liver damage if ingested in extremely high doses.
- Food and Drug Administration (April 1, 2010). "Food and Drugs, Chapter I, Subchapter A, Food for Human Consumption, Part 169—Food Dressings and Flavorings". Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Department of Heath and Human Services. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
- Mazor, S.S.; C. A. DesLauriers; M. B. Mycyk (2005). "Adolescent Ethanol Intoxication from Vanilla Extract Ingestion: A Case Report". The Internet Journal of Family Practice 4 (1). Retrieved 2010-06-10.
- The Associated Press (July 03, 2010). "Memphis woman charged with DUI after drinking vanilla extract". World News Network All rights reserved. Retrieved 14 July 2010.
- "Frequently Asked Questions about coumarin in cinnamon and other foods" (PDF). The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. 14 July 2011.