Vanilla is arguably the most important and most used flavoring in baking. Pastry chefs love it as a central spice in custard, wafer, and cake recipes — and it’s also added to baked goods to enhance the flavor of other ingredients.
But what exactly is vanilla, and is it keto-friendly?
Vanilla is a complex but subtle spice made from the cured pods of the vanilla orchid. And yes, it’s (usually) keto-friendly. But there are different types of vanilla products on the market, not all of them low in carbs.
Vanilla products can also be misleading, with many containing synthetic ingredients to imitate vanilla bean flavor.
Because vanilla is such an essential ingredient, it’s crucial to purchase the best you can afford, and that will help keep your daily carb intake low. With that said, here is what you need to know about this mighty spice on the keto diet.
Where Does Vanilla Come From?
Vanilla flavor comes from the vanilla orchid, a tropical plant native to South and Central America as well as the Caribbean . But most vanilla today — about 75% — is actually grown in Madagascar and Réunion.
Growing and preparing vanilla is a lengthy and complicated process. The orchids first need to be hand-pollinated, and the pods take almost a year to ripen. Once the beans are harvested, they undergo a long, multi-step curing process. The end product is long, brown pods with up to 500 different flavor components, making vanilla one of the most complex spices.
And because production is so complex, only 2000 metric tonnes are produced every year. That is is way too little to meet the vast global demand for vanilla, explaining why vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron.
Types of Vanilla Flavorings
There are two main types of vanilla flavorings: naturally sourced and imitation vanilla.
Vanilla extract is a famous example of a naturally sourced vanilla product. It’s a solution made with vanilla beans as the sole flavoring and alcohol. Some products may also contain water, sugar, dextrose, and corn syrup.
The FDA strictly regulates which products can carry the “vanilla extract” label . For example, the rules say that only products with vanilla beans as a source of their flavor can be called vanilla extract.
Imitation vanilla is made from synthetic vanillin. Vanillin is the main flavoring compound in natural vanilla, but it’s also produced through chemical synthesis.
Products with synthetic vanillin often carry labels like vanilla aroma, vanilla flavor, and vanilla essence. Most vanilla-flavored products also have vanillin instead of natural vanilla.
Vanilla is also available as:
- Vanilla sugar
- Vanilla paste
- Vanilla powder
- Vanilla syrup
- Whole vanilla pods.
The first two are not keto-friendly, but vanilla pods definitely are. However, most home chefs don’t use whole pods in their baking because vanilla is very expensive. Instead, pods are usually bought to make homemade extracts.
Is Vanilla Keto?
Vanilla flavoring is usually keto-friendly. Vanilla extract — the most commonly used vanilla flavoring — has less than a gram of carbs per teaspoon . However, other vanilla flavorings are more often than not high in carbs. Vanilla sugar, vanilla paste, and vanilla syrup are made with added sugars, so they’re pretty high in carbohydrates.
Imitation vanilla is usually also low in carbs. Vanilla essence and vanilla aroma often contain alcohol, water, artificial flavors, and colorings. However, some of these products can contain added sugars, so it’s essential to always read the ingredients list before purchasing.
Although botanically speaking a fruit, Vanilla beans are not a significant source of carbohydrates . So if you can splurge on whole vanilla beans for your keto desserts, you don’t really need to give it a second thought as far as carbs go.
Using Vanilla in Keto Recipes
Pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla are low in carbs, so both are perfectly ok in keto recipes. Of course, which one of these you should choose depends on personal preference, but here are a couple of points to know about each in case you can’t decide which one to use:
Pure vanilla extract can cost between $15 and $30 per 8oz bottle. Imitation vanilla usually costs up to $3 per 8oz bottle.
Natural vanilla is subtly sweet, musky, and creamy. Imitation vanilla has a strong and artificial vanilla flavor.
Real vanilla is a source of powerful antioxidants, notably vanillin, which seems to protect brain cells from inflammation .
And from a culinary standpoint, real vanilla stands out best in creamy desserts, like pudding, custards, frosting, and ice cream. And when it’s the only flavoring in a recipe, like in vanilla wavers, using the real thing can make a difference in how your dessert turns out. Of course, it’s also a good idea to use pure vanilla extract in keto no-bake recipes.
Imitation vanilla is perfectly ok in most baked goods and as a flavor enhancer. For example, you can use it in keto chocolate chip cookies, keto chocolate cake, keto brownies, muffins, and Swiss rolls.
Rupp R. The History of Vanilla. National Geographic Website. October 2014. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/plain-vanilla
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
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central. Vanilla extract. Apr 2019. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173471/nutrients
Simply Organic Whole Madagascar Vanilla Beans. Quality Food Centers. Accessed Oct 2021.
Kim ME, Na JY, Park YD, Lee JS. Anti-Neuroinflammatory Effects of Vanillin Through the Regulation of Inflammatory Factors and NF-κB Signaling in LPS-Stimulated Microglia. Appl Biochem Biotechnol. 2019;187(3):884-893. doi:10.1007/s12010-018-2857-5