Vanilla is to bakers what salt is to chefs: an essential flavor enhancer. Without it, your favorite cookies and cakes would taste boring. And because vanilla beans are expensive, most of us rely on vanilla extract to give our favorite desserts a boost of much-needed flavor.
But what exactly is in a bottle of vanilla extract? Is it even keto-friendly?
Well, vanilla extract is a solution of vanilla flavors and alcohol. Many countries have strict rules and stipulations that regulate the use of the “vanilla extract” label. These rules should help consumers know the real deal from the imitation, but that’s often not the case since labeling can be quite misleading.
And when you’re on a keto diet, misleading labels can ruin your attempts at keeping carb intake low.
To avoid this problem here is more on what vanilla extract is and how to choose the best vanilla extract for your keto desserts.
What Is Vanilla Extract?
The American Culinary Federation Education Foundation defines vanilla extract as “a solution made by steeping cured vanilla pods in alcohol until the flavor is infused .” Manufacturers grind up the cured beans and add them to alcohol to make vanilla extract. Often manufacturers also add water and other ingredients.
Vanilla pods, from which vanilla extract is made, are actually the fruits of a tropical orchid plant. They have over 200 flavor compounds, which explains why vanilla is one of the most complex flavors in existence. But their primary flavoring component is called vanillin.
Vanillin today also exists as a synthetic flavoring. Vanilla aroma, vanilla essence, and even products that have “extract” in the title use artificial vanillin instead of true vanilla. That’s because vanillin is cheap compared to vanilla extract.
Luckily, to help consumers from being misled, the FDA and other agencies control which products can carry the “vanilla extract” label.
The FDA requires vanilla extract to contain at least 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon . However, the FDA also allows manufacturers to add glycerin, dextrose, sugar, corn syrup, and other optional ingredients to products labeled as vanilla extract.
Types of Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract comes in two main types:
As already explained, the FDA defines vanilla extract as solutions made with real vanilla beans as the main flavoring ingredient and nothing else. Therefore, if you see a bottle with “vanilla extract” on the label, it means that the aroma of this product comes from real vanilla beans.
Imitation vanilla, vanilla aroma, and vanilla essence are products that have synthetic vanillin as the main flavoring compound. Synthetic vanillin is produced from wood byproducts and does not have the complexities of natural vanilla.
However, these flavorings are much cheaper than pure vanilla extract.
Vanilla extract can also be homemade and commercially produced.
All you need is vanilla pods and food-grade alcohol or even vodka to make a homemade extract. Simply place four split vanilla beans in 8oz of alcohol and store in a cool place away from direct sunlight for a couple of weeks or months. The longer the vanilla beans sit in the alcohol, the stronger the aroma.
Commercially produced vanilla extract is made with pods grown in Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico.
Is Vanilla Extract Keto-Friendly?
Most brands of pure vanilla extract are keto-friendly. That’s because most contain vanilla beans, alcohol, and water as the sole ingredients. But as already mentioned, the FDA allows vanilla extract manufacturers to add sugar, dextrose, and corn syrup to their products.
The only way to avoid accidentally adding these sugar-laden ingredients to your baked goods is to read the ingredients list and nutrition facts label. For example, if you only see vanilla bean extractives, water, and alcohol on the ingredients list and the product lists 2g of carbs per teaspoon, you can safely use it in your keto desserts.
Although less reliable, also check the color. Real vanilla extract has a deep brown color which comes directly from the vanilla pods. Imitation vanilla, in comparison, is clear. However, some manufacturers add caramel food coloring to make it look more like the real thing.
And lastly, take the price as an indicator of quality. Vanilla is very expensive: it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron , although prices have recently dropped. Currently, the minimum export price of vanilla is $250 per kilogram (2.2 lbs) . As a result, the average cost of vanilla extract is $20 for an 8oz bottle. Imitation vanilla can be found for a 1$ per 8oz bottle.
Is Imitation Vanilla Extract Keto-friendly?
Yes, imitation vanilla is usually also keto-friendly. If your budget doesn’t allow for expensive vanilla extract, feel free to use imitation vanilla in your keto baked goods. However, this is important to remember — always read the ingredients list and nutrition facts label before making your purchase.
Imitation vanilla is usually made with water, alcohol, vanillin, caramel color, and preservatives. All of these ingredients have barely any effect on blood glucose levels. Some brands may add sugar and other non-keto ingredients, but this is rare.
Another thing to note is that its low-carb count is where the benefits of imitation vanilla end. Imitation vanilla does not provide the antioxidants and other beneficial compounds of pure vanilla . Another downside is that the flavor simply can’t compare to the complex aroma of vanilla.
- American Culinary Federation Education Foundation. Ingredient of the Month: Vanilla Extract. March 2020. Available at: https://www.acfchefs.org/download/documents/ccf/nutrition/2020/202003_ingredient.pdf
- FDA/CEDR resources page. Vanilla extract. Accessed October 2021. https://www.ecfr.gov/current/title-21/chapter-I/subchapter-B/part-169/subpart-B/section-169.175
- Gelski J. Vanilla demand rises as foodservice recovers. Food Business New. Jun 2021. https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/18799-vanilla-demand-rises-as-foodservice-recovers
- Shyamala BN, Naidu MM, Sulochanamma G, Srinivas P. Studies on the antioxidant activities of natural vanilla extract and its constituent compounds through in vitro models. J Agric Food Chem. 2007;55(19):7738-7743. doi:10.1021/jf071349+