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Finding Real Vanilla Extract in Mexico

Real Mexican vanilla: harder to get but worth the expense
Pure, natural Mexican vanilla beans cost more per ounce than silver

People often crow about the fantastic deal they got on a giant bottle of “real vanilla extract” in Mexico. Despite what the label says, though, chances are it isn’t real vanilla at all; it’s imitation vanilla made with ingredients you probably don’t want to be ingesting.

Why do I say this? For me it started with Patricia Rain and her informative website. She’s a socially conscious author, educator and culinary historian dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla and the support of vanilla farmers around the world. It was through Rain’s research and work that I began to understand why vanilla – made from the seed pods of a fragile orchid — costs so much and what my options really were in terms of buying it.

Just last week, the Mexican Comité Sistema Producto Nacional de la Vainilla (National Vanilla Product Committee) released a statement declaring that “95% of vanilla consumed in Mexico is artificial.” The article goes on to describe widespread use of coumarin – used to make rat poison and banned in the U.S. — and the formation of the Mexican Institute of Vanilla (Instituto Mexicano de la Vainilla) to increase production and bring back the integrity of Mexican vanilla.


Let’s back up a bit. Mexico has a long history of vanilla-growing; without getting too detailed, a host of factors have contributed to its current difficulties. These include petroleum companies stripping hardwood forests in the Gulf’s vanilla-growing region, the declining bee population, climate change, increased production of lower-grade vanilla in Madagascar and Indonesia and saturation of the market with artificial vanilla extract labeled otherwise.

Like many other products, vanilla is a popular target for thieves.

Each year, the majority of vanilla beans grown in Mexico – a declining total crop of less than 10 tonnes in 2019, compared to about 1,700 tonnes from Madagascar — are purchased to make extract in the United States. Nevertheless, supposed Mexican vanilla beans and extract are still for sale in Mexico, where stores and vendors hawk bottles of “PURE VANILLA EXTRACT.”

But consumers should be aware that vanilla beans are brought into Mexico from other countries (mainly Madagascar) and are then sold as Mexican. The same is true of extracts: the sad fact is that almost all of so-called “real vanilla extract” bought in Latin America is imitation vanilla.

How can that be? Well, in Mexico labeling laws aren’t enforced so don’t believe that the label screaming “100% REAL MEXICAN VANILLA!” is an accurate account of the ingredients. Synthetic vanilla may include paper pulp and coal tar, and most likely also coumarin, mentioned above. It doesn’t matter if it’s clear or dark, or how good it smells — it’s still nothing but synthetic vanillin.

“If you want synthetic, buy it in the U.S.; it’s the same price as you’d pay in Mexico but American synthetics aren’t adulterated with dangerous additives,” says Rain. “If you want pure Mexican vanilla extract, and are prepared to spend for it, buy it from a reputable dealer.” (Full disclosure: yes, that includes from her website.)

Basically, you get what you pay for. In 2018 vanilla beans cost more per ounce than silver. (Because they’re so valuable, theft of immature beans from the vines often makes nervous farmers pick too early, resulting in an inferior product.) Current vanilla prices are US $400 a kilo for beans at source, depending on size and quality, and extract-grade beans are even more expensive. When shipping, customs and other fees are added, the price can be $100 more per kilo.

“How much did you pay for it? That’s the biggest tip-off,” says Rain. “Pure vanilla extract usually costs more in Mexico than in the U.S. If it’s in a big bottle and you paid $20 or less, it’s not pure vanilla extract, no matter what the label says.”

By Janet Blaser
Published on Monday, February 10, 2020

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