Vanilla originated in Mexico from the Vanilla plantfolia, or vanilla orchid.
Mexican vanilla refers both to the original vanilla made from the beans of vanilla orchids, or the fake Mexican vanilla taste-alike made from tonka beans.
“Vanilla” is really just a flavor and does not refer to any specific plant or method of production.
What is the Difference Between “Vanilla” and “Mexican Vanilla”?
Vanilla is a flavor. Vanilla flavor can be made from vanilla beans, man-made chemicals or other substances. Mexican vanilla is vanilla made from the beans of vanilla orchids. Unfortunately, it also refers to a cheap, vanilla-flavored extract made with tonka beans, which contain coumarin, a blood thinner and suspected carcinogen.
Not all Mexican Vanilla is alike
In the 1980s, American tourists started bringing back bottles of vanilla extract labeled Mexican vanilla.
Although it tasted like vanilla, it was not made with Mexican vanilla beans. It was made with tonka beans. The result tasted like vanilla and was much cheaper than vanilla made with Mexican vanilla beans.
However, there was a problem. Tonka beans contain a substance prohibited in any foods or drinks in America since 1954 – coumarin.
If this name sounds familiar, it’s because you are thinking of the popular blood-thinning medication Coumadin, which is made of warfarin, a substance very similar to coumarin. It’s also an effective rodenticide.
Why is coumarin banned in America?
It’s because of the blood-thinning properties.
People with bleeding disorders or who are already taking blood-thinning medication eat something with tonka beans and could potentially bleed to death should they get injured and their blood refuses to clot.
Another problem with coumarin is that is a suspected carcinogen. It specifically damages the kidneys and liver.
You do have to consume large doses of it. However, just two teaspoons (5 grams) could kill a sheep.
This, and the fact that tonka beans are banned by the US government, have not stopped America from being the largest importer of tonka beans in the world.
Can You Tell Good Mexican Vanilla from Bad?
So, if you go to Mexico and shop for vanilla extract, how can you tell real Mexican vanilla from fake Mexican vanilla?
Although the BBC states that you can smell a difference, chances are:
- You’re not going to tell the difference unless you’re a gourmet chef.
- The Mexican shopkeeper is not going to be too happy with Americans sniffing all of their bottles of vanilla extract.
The FDA recommends reading the label to see what the ingredients are, and not buying anything without an ingredients label.
However, according to a 1992 story in the Chicago Tribune, bottles of Mexican vanilla extract labelled as made with Mexican vanilla beans, when tested, turned out to be made of tonka beans.
Chances are that bottles are still given misleading labels in Mexico. If you do travel to Mexico, do not buy any Mexican vanilla extract. There are plenty of other things to do (and eat) in Mexico.
What’s Responsible for Vanilla Flavor?
The chemical that gives a vanilla bean its distinctive odor and taste is called vanillin. People have figured out how to make synthetic chemicals that smell and taste like vanillin.
These synthetic chemicals are called lignin and guaiacol.
There is also another synthetic chemical called ethylvanillin that is supposed to be three times stronger than real vanilla. It’s cheaper than real vanilla extract. It’s used a lot in making chocolate and other foods.
Chances are, if you eat something flavored vanilla, unless it’s labeled vanilla bean (and not made in Mexico) you are actually eating ethylvanillin. It’s also used for perfumes.
Although synthetic chemicals have a bad reputation, ethylvanillin is harmless – unless you are a seller of real vanilla beans.
Anything made with real vanilla beans is made from an extract. This is made from soaking vanilla beans in alcohol. It takes a whopping amount of alcohol to achieve this.
Most bottles of vanilla extract are 35% alcohol. A bottle of champagne, in contrast, is an almost temperate 12.5%.
This leads us to the most important bit of information you’ll most likely read on the Internet all day.
You Can Get Drunk on a Bottle of Vanilla Extract
And now we know why so many American tourists went to Mexico to shop for vanilla extract. They weren’t all pastry chefs.
However (and this is a big however) the taste is horrible. It’s so intense that you probably will not be able to hold down enough vanilla extract to get well and truly sozzled.
Vanilla extract is usually sold in tiny bottles in North America. One 1.5 ounce bottle will not get you drunk, but may get you sick.
Not that this hasn’t stopped people from being up to the vanilla extract challenge. In 2019, a woman from Connecticut was caught drunk driving after she had consumed “several” bottles of vanilla extract.
High schoolers in Georgia were caught spiking their coffee with it. One even had to go to the hospital.
And those are just the ones that get caught. Because the bottles are so small (and potent), they are common targets of shoplifters.
Despite the alcohol level, no one needs to show an I.D. to buy vanilla extract in America.
The intoxicating effects of alcohol are burned off in cooking, so there’s no worry that those homemade cupcakes will give you a hangover.
Frequently Asked Questions About What is the Difference Between “Vanilla” and “Mexican Vanilla”
What’s the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla?
French vanilla originally referred to a specific flavor of ice cream. French vanilla is made differently, using egg-custard as a base, which gives it a yellow color and slightly different flavor and odor from regular vanilla. Regular vanilla ice cream is made without eggs.
What’s the Difference Between Mexican Vanilla and Madagascar Vanilla?
Madagascar vanilla, also called bourbon vanilla, is made with a different type of vanilla bean than Mexican vanilla, although both beans are the same species, Vanilla plantifolia. The flavor of Madagascar vanilla is creamier and richer than the Mexican. It’s also more expensive, because humans have to pollinate the plant in Madagascar instead of bees.
What’s the Difference Between Vanilla and Vanilla Bean?
Vanilla bean means that the vanilla flavor you taste came from vanilla beans. Anything else flavored vanilla most likely used man-made synthesized vanilla. Ironically, they both taste like vanilla.
Vanilla refers to a flavor. Mexican vanilla refers to two kinds of vanilla. The first kind is made with real Mexican vanilla beans.
The second kind pretends to be the first but is made with tonka beans, a food banned in America because tonka beans contain coumarin.