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!

4 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Vanillin, The Vanilla Imitator

  1. I am struggling to identify the specific source of my allergy to artificial vanilla. For over two years, I’ve broken out in hives multiple times a day. It took a while, but we finally realized the culprit was my liquid vanilla coffee creamer, which I use in both coffee and (several cups of) tea every day. One day, the store only had Hazelnut; for the first time in TWO YEARS, I went a couple of WEEKS w/o hives. Ah, the relief!

    It wasn’t until the vanilla creamer was purchased again and the hives returned, that the connection was FINALLY made. Argh! I called the company and learned that they use both “natural” and “artificial” flavorings–but they wouldn’t give any more details. I ate vanilla yogurt and a few other foods with all natural vanilla and did NOT get hives, so I assume it’s the artificial vanilla that I’m allergic to. Vanilla is used to flavor SO many unexpected things–not just vanilla-flavored items.

    Now, the question is this: how in the WORLD can I track foods with one of the many variations of fake vanilla, when the ingredients aren’t even specific enough to list vanillin…or “creosote,” “pine sap” or whatever other horrifying chemical they dare to call vanilla? Any suggestions?

    By the way, I’m only getting hives occasionally now,but I’d like to avoid them altogether! Due to an endocrine disorder, my body doesn’t produce the stress hormone cortisol, so even hives can send my body into an adrenal crisis, requiring the hormonal version of an Epi-pen, hospitalization, and a truly dire need for emergency medical care.

    1. Oh my goodness! Sorry to hear you’re having such issues, but glad to see you’ve figured out what it is. My only suggestion is that when you see the words “artificial flavors” at all, don’t eat it. There are so many things that can be included (or hidden) under that label and most likely at some point, artificial vanilla flavoring is one of them.

      1. Hi, thanks for the timely reply! By suggesting I avoid anything with “artificial flavors,” are you saying that things like vanillin WILL always be listed as artificial? This is where I am getting really confused. As we know, manufacturers and marketers don’t like to admit the CRAZY stuff they put/allow into our food. If vanillin is even 1% vanilla–and can come from other so-called “natural” sources like pine sap and wood pulp (they ARE natural, if not really meant for human consumption)–might they be including vanillin or some of the other imitation vanilla flavors under the “natural flavors”?

        Over the years, I’ve gotten the impression that there is really little to no oversight in ingredients labeling or accuracy, except for the few laws re: allergens, calories, etc., that have been pushed through by the sheer desperation of concerned consumers and PARENTS. As with vitamins and food supplements, companies have a great deal of freedom to bend the truth of what’s actually IN their products.

        As of now, I try REALLY hard to stick to an 80-20 whole foods diet, but even that is a challenge due to my chronic illnesses (I’m dependent on others to shop for, and even cook for me). So I’m not even the one at the supermarket READING ingredients labels. I’ve just gone online, made calls, and read labels of foods I already have in the house. Let’s put it this way: I cannot fathom a world in which I avoid say, ALL ICE CREAM, because really, ANY flavor could use vanillin or another imitation, right? How careful should a person GET about this stuff?

        I am already so limited–I spent over 20 hrs/day in a recliner chair, barely able to walk due to an unsuccessful back surgery and to severe leg weakness from my Adrenal Insufficiency. I rarely leave the house, except for very occasional doc appts, and I sleep an average of 12-16 hours/day, sometimes more. One of the few “occupations” I HAVE is meticulously going through the supermarket ads and selecting sale items to buy in bulk, needed items with coupons available, which store has the best deal on natural staples (like potatoes, rice, kale, produce, etc), and a FEW joyful foods that are truly sometimes the ONLY thing to make me smile amidst constant severe pain and disability, Plus, I have a young adult son who is ill and dependent on me, along with my darling six year old, whom I adopted before I became ill or could ever have IMAGINED being in this awful health situation!

        It seems there probably is no clear or simple answer, but I’m wondering how vigilant you–or others who may be reading–would be if you were in this situation. I keep Benadryl close at hand, and it works well. But with my body already having SO many drug interactions (I’m on 25+ meds…yes, really) and my endocrine system so confused and out of whack, it’s not hard to imagine my allergic reaction suddenly becoming more severe–like how peanut or shellfish allergies can cause anaphylactic shock and a dire medical emergency. The severity of reactions IS unpredictable and can change at any time, right? One good benefit I have that others do not is that I am ALWAYS on corticosteroids (they keep me alive because my body doesn’t produce them anymore), which are actually a top choice for reducing hives, inflammation, and allergic reactions. I was already ON the steroids when I developed the vanilla allergy–wonder how severe my reaction would have been if I WASN’T already taking those steroids!

        Okay, I am now officially babbling. Forgive me! I have very little stimulating human contact, AND I am REALLY invested in figuring out the details of this allergy and just how careful I will need to be. Until now? The only things I have EVER been allergic to were discovered in a blood panel. They were dust and cockroaches, of all things! The dust allergy drives me crazy, but dust is an unavoidable part of life here in Southern Calif, where the super dry Santa Ana winds roll through somewhat regularly. I KNOW how to deal with that, and the cockroaches…well, I just opt not to keep any as pets OR pests, haha. Non-specific and/or misleading food labels are a whole new ballgame for me–especially because the shock to my body of a reaction can have such terrible consequences (known as an “adrenal crisis,” if you’re curious). I’ll stop now. 🙂 And allow you to digest and hopefully to offer a reply of some sort.


        1. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes, because vanillin is made in a lab or factory and uses nonfood items, it’s considered an artificial ingredient. Vanilla would be listed as that, vanilla. Whereas vanillin could probably be listed as either “vanillin” or under that umbrella of artificial flavors or ingredients. If you have any kind of reaction to vanillin, I would definitely steer clear of artificial ingredients of any source, since it could be lurking there. I have seen some labels put in under “artificial flavor” and discovered upon contacting the company that yes, indeed it was in it. And even more sad news is this “Chances are that at some point over the next few months your favorite ice cream or yogurt might be flavored with vanillin. The catch is, you will have no way of knowing if it is or isn’t. As with other genetically engineered food products, there are no regulations in place in the United States (or Europe, for that matter) requiring that biosynthetic food ingredients like these be clearly labeled.”

          As far as ice cream goes, back in 2014, Haagen Dazs issued as statement that they were not going to use vanillin in their products. It’s definitely worth looking into. They label “vanilla extract” on their cartons.

          Hope this all helps in some way! Best wishes and thank you so much for reading. I’ve been taking a brief hiatus since we’re in the process of selling our house and moving back to Texas.

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