We all love vanilla bean ice cream. It’s creamy, delicious and gourmet….right? Maybe.
Vanilla ice cream is often sold in two varieties: French Vanilla and Vanilla Bean. The quality of the vanilla extracts or flavorings in these two ice creams can vary wildly, but neither is inherently better than the other.
When your vanilla ice cream has vanilla bean seeds, or specks, it may be tempting to think that it’s more natural, gourmet or higher quality, but the truth is that the vanilla bean seeds are purely aesthetic. They offer no additional flavoring.
Vanilla bean seeds are added to ice cream in two ways:
Vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds are each added separately, providing both flavor and the visual effect of vanilla bean seeds.
Ice cream makers use whole vanilla bean pods to provide both the flavoring agent and the vanilla bean seeds.
The first method is the most common. It’s cheaper, faster and provides a strong, consistent vanilla flavor profile.
What exactly are vanilla bean seeds or specks?
They are just what they sound like, tiny black seeds that line the inside of a vanilla bean.
When flavor houses extract vanilla beans to make vanilla extract, the goal is to extract all possible flavor from the bean, including its seeds. After the vanilla extract has percolated for an optimal time, the vanilla bean pods and seeds sink to the bottom and are filtered from the extract.
As a final step, the vanilla bean seeds are sifted from the spent vanilla bean pods.
The resulting bean pods and seeds are known as “exhausted,” because all flavor has been extracted.
Genuine vanilla bean seeds can come only from vanilla bean pods. In pure vanilla extract production, 1 gallon of pure vanilla extract yields about 3.5 ounces of exhausted seeds.
Traditionally, vanilla manufacturers as a courtesy have offered the spent seeds to their pure vanilla customers. In the last 10 years, however, as vanilla bean prices have increased, we have noticed an inordinate increase in demand for seeds, even while demand for pure vanilla extract has dropped.
To meet the increased demand, we have offered the exhausted vanilla seeds for sale separately, keeping the cost per pound extremely low relative to whole vanilla beans.
But in the last two years, we have seen requests for thousands of pounds of vanilla bean seeds accompanying much smaller orders for blended (Category II) vanillas made from both artificial and pure extract.
The mismatch between demand for vanilla seeds and vanilla extract makes it impossible to supply enough seeds. Since the seeds are a small by-product of vanilla extract, and we cannot obtain them unless we buy (extremely expensive) whole vanilla bean pods and make (extremely expensive) pure vanilla extract from them.
Even the cheapest, lowest-grade vanilla bean pods cost more that $100 per pound. So it unequivocally makes no sense to purchase vanilla bean pods for the sole purpose of getting their seeds.
Which means that some of the seeds you see are not vanilla bean seeds at all. Just as with pure vanilla extract, we suspect significant adulteration of exhausted vanilla bean seeds in the industry.
Since exhausted vanilla bean seeds are purely aesthetic, why use them at all when finely ground spent coffee or nut shells look identical to the naked eye? The cost savings are enormous.
It’s almost impossible to tell the difference in the lab between vanilla bean seeds and exhausted coffee grounds. All residual flavor is gone, so only DNA analysis could detect the product’s fingerprint, a ridiculous test to perform on ice cream.
Perhaps you could use a microscope to distinguish more regular, smooth vanilla bean seeds from an irregular and jagged ground substance.
To be clear, we have no proof this is happening. But our years of expertise in the vanilla extract industry and dairy manufacturing lead us to believe that something fishy is going on with the exhausted vanilla bean seed market. The math does not add up.
Aside from cost, there are two other motives to adulterate vanilla bean seeds.
The first is pure vanilla’s strict labeling regime. Vanilla extract or flavor has three labeling categories. Ice cream has two. These rare requirements were established to help consumers distinguish ice cream quality.
But if an ice cream uses an artificial vanilla (requiring a label that says so) AND contains vanilla beans seeds, the front label can still read “Vanilla Bean Ice Cream.”
Essentially, it’s a labeling loophole that allows a lower quality vanilla ice cream to masquerade as a high quality product.
The second motive plays on consumer psychology. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the quality of their food. Seeing vanilla bean seeds seems to say this ice cream is more “natural” and higher quality.
So what to do?
We recommend examining the fine print on the back-label ingredients on your ice cream. If a vanilla ice cream is made with pure vanilla extract, it will say so. Look out for the words “natural,” “artificial” and “vanilla flavor. These signify a category 2 or 3 vanilla.
Know that vanilla bean specks are not necessarily an indication of quality.
Know your labeling laws for vanilla and for ice cream. They are:
Vanilla Category 1 (Pure Vanilla Extract): Must contain at least 13.3 oz. vanilla beans per gallon of extract (for single fold extract) and at least 35% alcohol. All flavoring components come directly from the vanilla bean. May not be spiked with any artificial flavors.
Labelled as Pure Vanilla Extract
Vanilla Category 2 (Natural Vanilla Extract or Flavor): At least 51% of vanilla flavoring must come from the vanilla bean. No more than 49% of the flavoring can be added artificially. Alcohol percentage may be lower.
Labelled as Natural Vanilla Extract or Natural Vanilla Flavor
Vanilla Category 3 (Artificial Vanilla Extract or Flavor): No restrictions on artificial ingredients or alcohol percentage.
Labelled as Artificial Vanilla Flavor, Artificial Vanilla Extract, Imitation Vanilla Flavor or Imitation Vanilla Extract
For Ice Creams:
Ice Cream: Minimum 10% milkfat.
Iced Milk: 3-7% milkfat. Sometimes called reduced fat or non-fat ice cream.
Frozen Dairy Dessert: Less than 3% milkfat.
Frozen Dessert: Made with non-dairy products.