You may have heard that a woman was arrested for driving under the influence of vanilla extract (see news article here). How did this happen?! To read more about DUIs, check out Matheson & Associates’s blog post. Probably one of the most head scratching details of this article was that vanilla extract contains 35% alcohol! To put this in perspective Jagemeister is 35% alcohol. Why can we buy vanilla extract at the grocery store?
Interestingly enough vanilla extract does depend on alcohol to extract the essential flavors and fragrances from the vanilla bean. And, it’s required by law to have an alcohol content of at least 35%. But vanilla extract is not regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Bureau (TTB).
During Prohibition the Flavor and Extracts Manufacturers Association lobbied politicians to allow them to keep operating under the alcohol ban. The Flavors Association argued that unless alcohol used in flavor extracts were exempted from the strict Prohibition laws, then the food industry would take a serious hit. The constant persuading from lobbyists worked- the Volstead Act included a clause that made an exemption for flavor extracts. The flavor extracts, however, had to be non-potable and something a reasonable person would not drink.
Because vanilla extract is not an alcohol beverage, it falls under the control of the Food and Drug Administration as a food product rather than the TTB.
The amount of alcohol in vanilla extract depends on the brand. One gallon of pure vanilla extra should contain at least 35% alcohol, 65% water, and 13.35 oz. vanilla beans. Have no fear though! The alcohol content gets evaporated during cooking or baking. A small amount of alcohol actually gets ingested inside your body, so it’s not harmful.
What about imitation vanilla?
To put it simply, it’s gross. Although cheaper than pure vanilla, the imitation version is made from synthetic vanilla. Synthetic vanilla can come from wood pulp waste, coal tar, cow poop, secretions from a beaver’s castor glands, clove oil, pine bark, or fermented bran. Read more here.