Vanilla extracts: Alcohol vs Alcohol-free

There seems to be an ongoing fixation on alcohol-free vanilla extract in the raw food world. To one aspect of it, I can understand the approach to a sense of ‘purism’ of it, though, I find it somewhat over-emphasised and exaggerated, causing people to fanatically searching out of their way for it with very little understanding. So let me share with you what I have learnt from Rully, a lovely vanilla-expert-lady from the company I work for, whom I have been endlessly consulting (or annoying her) with, in choosing superior vanilla bean types for Q’s extracts and whole beans.

The development of alcohol-free vanilla extracts is really for those who cannot or do not wish to tolerate alcohol into their diets (i.e. halal labeling purposes). Alcoholic vanilla extracts do not mean they are inferior to alcohol-free ones; on the contrary, they are far more superior in terms of the extraction process as well as being the best carrier substance for its aroma.

Both versions undergo the same initial process of extraction using alcohol; water based solution in the extraction process is sometimes used for certain ingredients, however, using water solution on vanilla to extract it is almost as good as wasting it (kind of like..  having purchased a new clothing item and get it ruined the first time you wear it out. It’s heartbreaking). Where the processes of the two kinds differ, is in the finishing step. To make the extract alcohol free, a solution of propelyne glycol (or sometimes glycerol) is added. Then, there you have it.

The drawback in alcohol-free vanilla extract is the loss of its aroma. Try smelling the two together if you ever get the chance to, and you’ll notice the big difference.

So unless you really must (or wish), there is no real value in using an alcohol-free extract.

And if you really think about the servings of it..

Standard alcohol content in vanilla extracts: 35%

1 teaspoon = 5 ml = (*0.35) = 1.75ml of alcohol

1 tablespoon = 15ml = (*0.35) = 5.25ml of alcohol

Will you really be affected?

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  1. Hi, thanks for sharing this info. This is such a great topic. I, for one, do not have easy access to vanilla beans because of where I live (Japan), so I do use vanilla essence that has alcohol. Organic, alcohol-free vanilla is so expensive and I could never justify spending so much on something that I use very infrequently anyway.

    More importantly, I think this post is also to do with how pure should one be, or strive to be, or does it really matter in the big picture. I also use toasted nori sheets, cocoa powder and maple syrup which are not raw — I try not to stress too much about it because what counts is that the bulk of my daily food intake is still raw, unprocessed, veggies/fruit/nuts etc.

      • Dom
      • February 22nd, 2010

      i agree on everything. i’m not at all a purist. i have too little time to worry about the little things. i just go for the least processed and balance enough of the non-raw intake to a point where i can still run through my week energised. we only live once..

  2. where have you gone!!
    MORE POSTS. MORE POSTS.

    i hope tingz are well :)

  3. I was just thinking about it. I realise the MIA. Balancing day job/book writing/blogging/weekend breaks is tough! Will new post soon, that’s a self-promise. In the meantime, thank you. :)

    • Jonathan Edelson
    • July 27th, 2010

    I stumbled upon your post looking up some stuff of vanilla and glycerol, and I think you might find the following useful:

    Vanilla can be extracted in numerous ways. As you note, the common approach is to use ethanol and water. However there are other approaches that work to a greater or lesser extent.

    It is possible to make an ‘hydroethanolic’ extract, and then strip off all of the solvent, and then re-dissolve the resultant mass in another solvent. I believe that this what you describe above. One significant problem is that when you strip off the solvent, you also strip off lots of the extremely volatile aroma compounds, thus the loss of smell.

    Interestingly, a common industrial vanilla extract is ’10x’, which is made by stripping off only part of the solvent to leave a more concentrated vanilla extract. Well even though the result is more concentrated, and the product is still in alcohol, there is still lots of loss of aroma compounds.

    However it is also possible to use either glycerine or propylene glycol solutions as the initial solvent. If you do this, then you don’t have to strip the solvent off, so you don’t lose the aroma compounds…except: some of the aroma compounds present in vanilla extract are not present in the vanilla beans; they are formed by chemical reaction between the beans and the alcohol.

    A solvent system that is becoming more common is carbon dioxide. Yup, the same stuff that you exhale and the same stuff that leaves us worried about the climate. At high pressure the stuff is a pretty good solvent, and can be used to make natural product extracts. Look for ‘CO2 vanilla absolute’, for example. Basically none of the flavor compounds get lost from the vanilla bean, with essentially no solvent residue. Some companies are even making extremely concentrated alcohol extracts, by soaking beans in alcohol and then using CO2 to get the vanilla and alcohol out of the beans. You get the benefit of all the reactions between the beans and the alcohol, but with much more flavor per unit alcohol.

    Best Regards,
    Jon

  4. Great hub site. I love how you presented your article. I enjoyed reading it. By the way, cute drawings.

    • scott hulke
    • December 5th, 2011

    can i use home made grain alcohol at 40 proof or is that not strong enough?

  5. Well, some people do have allergies. And a lot of the alcohol is made from corn. Corn allergies, for people with celiac disease, can be quite serious. So, is the alcohol made from corn?

    The other reason I have been interested in finding alcohol-free vanilla is for yogurt. When you make yogurt at home, and you add vanilla extract, the alcohol kills the yogurt cultures. I love vanilla yogurt, and sometimes want to make it at home (it is cheaper; many commercial yogurts have corn starch or corn syrup). But when I have made it, the vanilla has killed the yogurt.

    Vanilla beans are a little bit too costly for me.

    Maybe alcohol-free vanilla is too? Don’t know yet.

    • noelnoms
    • February 20th, 2012

    Thank you so much for the info! I’ve been wondering about the differences…, and now I know.

    • rich
    • March 16th, 2012

    I have a breathalizer at home for court conditions and I registered 0.012 alcohol using Pure Vanilla extract in some rice crispies so beware.

    • Mary
    • March 18th, 2012

    For me it would make a difference only because i am allergic to Alcohol, and the other week i was making cupcakes and the icing was sweating through the piping bag and i was having a reaction from it. If there was a way that made it easier to work with and easier to eat without my toung swelling up, i think it would help!

    • Dee
    • July 4th, 2012

    Is it true that vanilla with alcohol will be bitter in recipes for uncooked foods? I want to try a recipe that calls for alcohol-free vanilla for this reason, and I’m wondering if it is really necessary to go out of my way to find the stuff. I’ve never heard of the bitterness issue, but it would help to explain why those who follow a raw food diet would be using it.

    • Mary
    • July 4th, 2012

    I prefer to use alcohol free vanilla or vanilla with minimal alcohol content in my homemade ice cream because it freezes better. I had one batch that called for quite a bit of mint extract which was high in alcohol and the ice cream didn’t freeze.

      • Dino
      • December 6th, 2012

      You can always try using vanilla powder for your ice creams. The powder has quite a lot of flavor and no alcohol obviously

    • Shiki
    • December 20th, 2012

    It is indeed true that vanilla with alcohol will be bitter in uncooked foods. I made a batch of raw chocolate that tasted AWFUL…and the culprit was that I had accidentally used vanilla with alcohol instead of alcohol-free.

    • leewoodworth
    • January 7th, 2013

    Also they often recommend not giving Vanilla to children under 18 months. I’ve been trying to find out why, and I believe it’s the alcohol content, so that might be something.

  6. Just thinking out loud here, the strength of the vanilla smell in the vodka based extract might be due to the fact that alcohol is volatile (evaporates quickly) and therefore releases the vanilla smell in fumes. Whereas, the glycerin wont release as much smell because it does not evaporate nearly as much, but the “vanilla molecules” are still very present in the liquid form. Therefore the glycerin based extract is still strong in taste, but not in smell. I’m thinking that if we’re comparing just the taste, both types of extracts are pretty much the same (except one might taste more like alcohol than the other, which could be desired or undesired depending on your taste)

    • You may be spot on. The flavour components may be the same and alcohol-based extracts are more aromatic because of its volatile behavior. That said however, we do taste with our noses first. Thus why food, generally speaking, become less palatable when we catch a cold for example. We just can’t smell it!

  7. Sorry, just to clarify, I know that vodka isn’t used in store-bought extract. I’m just used to seeing vodka being used in numerous homemade vanilla extract recipes so I’m inclined to call it vodka based extract.

  1. February 21st, 2012

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