The birthplace of vanilla, Mexico produces some of the world’s finest vanilla beans. But there is often a lot of confusion about Mexican vanilla extracts. Let’s untangle them.
All vanilla beans derive their quality not from the region where they are grown, but from their methods of cultivation, harvest, and curing.
Yes, there are subtle flavor differences in beans from different regions. But as with wine, distinguishing those differences, and describing them, requires a keenly developed palette.
Most wine drinkers can taste the difference between wine made from two different varieties of grapes, say a Cabernet from a Zinfandel. But very few can accurately distinguish the difference between a Cabernet from California and one from France, if both are of equal quality.
Similarly, most people can tell the difference between the two primary varieties of vanilla, Tahitian and Planifolia (the variety grown in Madagascar, Mexico). But it is quite rare to be able to discern any difference between vanilla extracts of the same quality from Madagascar and Mexico because both countries grow the same variety of bean, Planifolia.
So why do so many people love Mexican vanilla extract and indeed go out of their way to buy it? Clearly there’s something different about Mexican vanilla extract!
The Paradox of Vanilla
To understand why, we have to look at the price of vanilla extract, and U.S. food safety and labeling standards.
What many people don’t know is that in the countries where vanilla is grown, the average person cannot afford to buy it. This has been especially true in the last three years, as bean prices have broken records.
Grown from an orchid, vanilla beans are one of the world’s most difficult crops to cultivate. After harvest, the beans require an arduous and tricky nine-month process of sun drying to cure properly. Vanilla simply does not lend itself to mechanization or other methods of mass production. From start to finish, vanilla beans are produced by hand. This method is feasible only in poor countries where wages are low. As a result, in countries where vanilla is grown, the average person simply cannot afford to spend $10 on a bottle of vanilla extract.
Artificial vanilla extract is affordable, and is the vanilla extract predominantly sold in countries that produce vanilla beans. This is the paradox of vanilla’s hand-crafted production.
That’s why in Mexico, even though the country grows very fine beans, artificial vanillas dominate the market.
Food Safety and Labeling Standards
These artificial vanillas, however, are often quite different from those found in the United States. That’s because the FDA’s stringent manufacturing protocols and labeling standards simply do not exist in Mexico.
These standards play a big role in artificial vanillas. One of the components of artificial vanilla that is most pleasing to the taste is Coumarin, a naturally occurring aromatic compound. Coumarin was often added to artificial vanillas for its sweet, buttery taste. For more information on artificial vanillas, see our article, Everything You Need to Know About Vanillin.
But in the mid 20th century, studies found Coumarin produces liver and lung cancer in mice. The FDA in banned Coumarin in 1954.
However, Mexico never outlawed Coumarin. It remains a major component of artificial vanilla flavorings produced and sold in Mexico. This flavoring component is what produces the recognizable taste that U.S. consumers have come to identify with Mexican vanilla.
Mexican food labeling laws are also much more lax. False or misleading claims on food labels are common, and so many vanillas labeled as pure extract in fact are artificial.
To ensure that you are buying high quality extracts, choose a company that has transparent business practices and consistent quality standards.
At Cooks, we are a family business celebrating our 100th anniversary this year, passing down the art of making vanilla to our fourth generation. We have always based our business on producing the highest quality vanilla, using slow, cold extractions. Cook’s always strives to meet the highest ethical and safety standards both for our customers and for the farmers who grow our beans. We would never sacrifice our craft or our reputation for short-term gain.
After a century in business, we plan to be here for another century!
If you have any questions, please call. We love to talk vanilla.
Margaret Schmidt Kobel, Chemist
Cook Flavoring Company
Fourth generation of the Lochhead Vanilla Family