Vanilla in cakes and cookies is a no-brainer. As Better Homes & Gardens notes, it’s been incorporated into recipes as far back as the 1600s, and for good reason. It automatically transforms the taste of cookies and other treats with not only its own flavor but also by enhancing the accompanying ingredients. Somewhere along the line, the food industry has discovered a way to mimic nature’s complexity, but here’s why flavor usually falls flat.
The first reason is the depth and complexity of flavors. According to Webstaurant, artificial vanilla has a unique flavor compound; thus the subtle and nuanced flavors of natural vanilla are non-existent. With between 250 and 500 flavor and fragrance components in natural vanilla, estimated by National Geographic, that’s a lot to miss. One of the main flavors of real vanilla beans is vanillin, which is easy and inexpensive to synthesize, leading to artificial vanilla products.
Here’s the second thing to consider when pouring this artificial liquid into your cookies. It may contain little to no real vanillin and a few questionable substitutes, including petrochemicals (via National Geographic). Scientific American stated in 2016 that approximately 85% of vanillin is synthesized from a petrochemical precursor known as guaiacol. Other brands of artificial vanilla use lignin, which is a byproduct of wood pulp and paper processing (via Michigan State University).
You can decide for yourself if the lower price of a vanilla extract substitute is worth the trade-offs in flavor and the inclusion of artificial non-food ingredients. For many, nothing beats the real thing, especially if you love cookies.