Food additives

The Curious Case of Vanillin, The Vanilla Imitator

If you read food labels, you’ve probably seen Vanillin. Also labeled as “artificial vanilla“, Methyl Vanillin, Ethyl Vanillin, or Vanillin Acetate, it’s far from actual vanilla. In fact, the process it’s made from makes it more of a Frankenstein concoction.


Vanillin started out innocently enough. A pharmacist in 1858 by the name of Nicolas-Theodore Gobley discovered that by drying vanilla extract and then recrystallizing it with hot water, he could get the essence of vanilla. Later, in 1874, 2 German scientists took it one step further and discovered they could make a synthesis for vanillin from pine bark.


That can’t be right? Can it? Unfortunately it was. And to a certain extent, it’s still made from trees. Why?¬†Because today the supply for vanilla far exceeds the demand, leaving vanillin to be produced by chemical synthesis. It can be produced from pine tree sap, wood creosote, wood pulp, sugar and coal tar. The wood pulp, creosote and sap are used to cut down production costs and is commonly made using petrochemicals and byproducts from paper industries.

A typical blend of vanillin is produced from oil (85%), woody biomass (15%), vanilla pods (<1%).

Thankfully, the FDA does require that the words imitation vanilla appear on the label if the product contains synthetic ingredients. If the label has the term vanilla extract, the product must be derived from vanilla beans.

Ok, science and history lesson out of the way….you just want to know if you should be concerned?¬† Good question. Unfortunately, if you or your child has food allergies, you might want to keep an eye out for vanillin. Surprisingly enough, if you have a corn allergy, tree pollen or sawdust allergy, you just MIGHT react to vanillin.

You might also be interested in   What is Annatto and why is it in my food?

Vanillin has also been known to trigger migraines, gastrointestional issues in those with known stomach ailments and contact dermatitis.

What foods typically contain vanillin?

  • Baked goods
  • Ice Cream
  • Root Beer
  • Syrups (Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup is one)
  • Butter
  • Chocolate
  • Gelatin like desserts
  • Yogurt
  • Candy
  • Sodas
  • Nutella (Walmart’s GREAT VALUE Brand doesn’t list vanillin but it does list “artificial flavor”)

I hear stories all the time about kids reacting to vanillin (my kids included), but there just aren’t many testimonials out there to write about. Has your child or you had an allergic reaction or intolerance to vanilla or vanillin? Leave me a comment below, I’d love to hear your story!

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