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Gluten Confusion: Vanilla Extract

12:38 PM


Recently I've been head-deep in something I'm calling the "Vanilla Extract Internet Swirl." It sounds like this:

Is vanilla extract gluten free? Some products label it gluten free. No, it has alcohol. No, it has caramel color. Well, those things don't matter. Yes, they do. No, they don't. 

Ugh. So much confusion. Why? Because we live in a beautiful, wonderful world that we humans can't begin to understand. But as our technology improves, so does our comprehension—twenty years ago, scientists weren't able to perform tests with the same level of nuance that they are today. Today, we can measure the parts per million of products like distilled grain alcohol and we know for a fact that all distilled alcohols are gluten free (unless, of course, they have questionable flavorings added in afterwards). 

So, what's the deal with vanilla extract? First of all, let's break down what we're talking about: vanilla extract, imitation vanilla and vanilla flavoring. 

Pure vanilla extract is a richly fragrant liquid with a clear, (not syrupy) dark amber color. The FDA specifies that it contains 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon during extraction, as well as a mixture of 35% alcohol and 65% water. It is also available in different strengths—like double and triple—and vanilla essence, so potent that only one or two drops are needed. 

Imitation vanilla is composed of artificial flavorings, some of which can sound sort of scary: clove oil, pine bark, coal tar, bran, and paper-industry by-products. Yum. It is more harsh and can have a bitter aftertaste, although tasters often find little difference between pure and imitation vanilla in baked goods. 

Vanilla flavoring is a blend of pure and imitation vanilla. 

Okay cool. So, are any of these gluten free?

Yes. Pure vanilla extract is gluten free, period. It's just vanilla, distilled alcohol and water. Imitation vanilla and vanilla flavoring are likely gluten free also, but there isn't the same level of certainty that there is with pure extract. Why? Because there is another swirl: the "caramel color internet swirl." Celiac.com says that caramel color made in the United States is most likely gluten free, but that the stuff can sometimes contain malt syrup (usually from barley), starches from wheat, and even lactose (hey dairy allergy). So imitation vanilla syrup is probably fine, but it isn't guaranteed unless promised by the manufacturer. 


Looking for vanilla options? You could buy pure (it's a little more pricey, but if you're adding it to unbaked recipes like smoothies and yogurt you'll want pure for sure). You could make your own (it takes some time, but we're going to try it). Or you could buy safe imitations (like McCormick Premium Imitation Vanilla Extract). 

What do you do? Have you made your own vanilla extract before? Are there other imitation brands you use safely?

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