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Drinking Habits

Does Vanilla Extract Have Alcohol?

Published:
April 3, 2024
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17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 3, 2024
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17 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
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17 min read

Decoding Vanilla Extract’s Alcohol Content

  • Vanilla extract almost always contains alcohol due to the efficiency with which alcohol is able to extract flavor from vanilla beans.
  • Vanilla extract typically does not pose a threat due to the small amounts used when cooking, but it can be a trigger to those of us in recovery from alcohol misuse.
  • Reframe can help you identify your triggers, set boundaries, and develop a healthier relationship with alcohol.

Vanilla extract is a kitchen staple that brings a rich, complex flavor to sweets and baked goods. It’s nearly ubiquitous in baking and added as an enhancer to many other flavors, like caramel and chocolate.

But there’s something lurking inside that vanilla extract bottle in your spice cabinet: alcohol. Why does vanilla extract have alcohol in it, and how much alcohol does it have? Let’s look at the science and find out whether or not vanilla extract poses the same risks as alcohol.

What Is Vanilla Extract?

The traditional method of vanilla extract crafting involves splitting the beans to expose their seeds and submerging the split beans in a mixture of alcohol and water. Over time, the alcohol extracts the flavor compounds from the beans, resulting in the aromatic liquid we're familiar with. This method ensures that the full spectrum of vanilla's flavor — from floral to woody — is captured in every drop.

A (Very) Brief Chemistry Lesson

Why does vanilla extract have alcohol? Ethanol (a type of pure alcohol) is the preferred solvent for making vanilla extract due to its efficiency in dissolving the flavor compounds found in vanilla beans. These compounds, including vanillin, are more soluble in alcohol than in other edible liquids, making ethanol ideal for extracting maximum flavor.

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In vanilla extract, alcohol is also used for preservation and flavor enhancement. Alcohol stabilizes the flavor compounds, preventing them from degrading over time. This means that a bottle of vanilla extract can retain its flavor for years, unlike other flavorings that may lose potency. Moreover, alcohol's volatile nature helps disperse the vanilla aroma, enhancing the overall flavor profile of the dishes in which it’s used.

So just how much alcohol is in vanilla extract, and how is vanilla extract regulated?

Vanilla Extract Alcohol Content

By U.S. law, pure vanilla extract must contain a minimum of 35% alcohol. The rest is generally water and vanilla bean extractives. This high alcohol content is necessary to effectively extract the flavors from the vanilla beans and preserve them for long-term storage.

Let’s compare vanilla extract to other common alcoholic products.

  • Beer: generally 4% to 10% alcohol
  • Wine: 10% to 14% alcohol
  • Fruit liqueurs: 28% to 32% alcohol
  • Gin and vodka: 35% to 45% alcohol
  • Whiskey, rum, and tequila: 40% to 50% alcohol

Vanilla extract’s high alcohol content places it in a unique category, closer to some liquors. Yet, anyone can purchase vanilla extract on the shelves of a supermarket regardless of age. So why isn’t it a concern for regulators?

Legal and Regulatory Aspects

In the United States, vanilla extract is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which sets standards for what constitutes “pure” extract, including minimum vanilla extract alcohol content. 

Despite its high alcohol percentage, vanilla extract is regulated as a food product, not an alcoholic beverage. However, there are still guidelines and labeling requirements to ensure that the product is used as intended — for cooking and baking rather than consumption as a beverage.

Generally, regulatory agencies do not see vanilla extract as posing a significant risk of misuse due to the small quantities in which it’s bottled (generally a few ounces at a time) and the strong, potent flavor that makes it difficult to misuse. (This doesn’t mean it can’t trigger alcohol misuse behaviors — more on that later.) So what is the proper use for vanilla extract?

How Is Vanilla Extract Used?

Vanilla extract is a staple in both professional and home kitchens. It’s used in baked goods (such as cookies, cakes, brownies, or muffins), yogurts, puddings, sodas, syrups, and sometimes coffee.

When used in baking, the high alcohol content of vanilla extract plays an important role in flavor dispersion. During the baking process, the majority of the alcohol evaporates due to the high temperatures involved, leaving behind the vanilla flavor without a boozy taste. The same isn’t true for some other uses.

Alcohol Content When Used in Coffee and Other Beverages

In addition to being used in baking, vanilla extract is commonly added to beverages to impart a subtle vanilla flavor. In these cases, the alcohol content is less likely to evaporate completely due to the relatively low temperatures involved.

The amount of vanilla extract typically used in uncooked items is so small that the alcohol content is negligible and highly unlikely to cause intoxication. However, it might impart a boozy aroma or essence that could trigger some of us who are in recovery, especially when added directly to warm drinks like coffee or hot chocolate where the alcohol won’t be cooked off. If you are in recovery, you may want to avoid vanilla extract. (You can learn more in our article about identifying triggers.)

The theoretical amount of vanilla extract required to achieve intoxication is impractically high due to its strong flavor and the adverse effects of consuming large quantities of such a concentrated substance. It's important to remember that vanilla extract is intended as a flavoring agent, not as a beverage. Vanilla extract is incredibly strong-flavored — it should always be measured precisely to avoid overpowering the intended dish or drink.

Health and Safety Considerations

Vanilla extract is an essential ingredient in some of our favorite dishes, but it comes with some of its own risks and health considerations. Let’s look at a few.

  • Consuming large amounts. Vanilla extract is safe in the small quantities used for cooking or baking. However, consuming it in large amounts can lead to unusually uncomfortable alcohol intoxication symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and dizziness due to the high alcohol content in vanilla extract, which can be as much as 35% to 40%.
  • Food-grade vs. non-food-grade. Food-grade vanilla extract is designed for consumption and is made using edible alcohol. In contrast, non-food-grade vanilla might contain toxic substances not intended for ingestion, posing serious health risks if consumed.
  • Trigger factor. For those of us in recovery from alcohol addiction, vanilla extract can serve as a trigger. It’s important to know our triggers and set boundaries for our health and safety. The alcohol smell or taste might evoke cravings or contribute to a relapse. So, let’s be careful! 

Real vs. Imitation Vanilla

Real vanilla extract is derived from vanilla beans and contains natural antioxidants. The vanillin in imitation extract is produced synthetically and lacks the benefits and flavor complexity of real vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla tends to have a stronger flavor. It contains about 15 times the amount of vanillin per unit as real extract and maintains its flavor better over time and when exposed to high heat. In almost all cases, imitation vanilla extract is still alcohol-based.

Can You Fail an Alcohol Test Due to Vanilla Extract?

Theoretically, consuming a significant amount of vanilla extract right before an alcohol test could lead to a positive result. However, the volume of extract necessary would need to be so high that this scenario is unlikely to actually happen. The amount used in baked goods is typically not more than a teaspoon (about a tenth of one shot of liquor) and shouldn’t cause any issues.

Can You Get Drunk Off Vanilla Extract?

What happens if you drink vanilla extract? First of all, it won’t taste as good as you might think. Vanilla extract is highly concentrated and has an extremely bitter taste when taken directly. Nevertheless, since the alcohol content in vanilla extract is on par with a lighter liquor such as vodka, taking a shot of vanilla extract is not that much different in terms of intoxication potential.

Although vanilla extract contains alcohol, the concentration and the quantity typically used in cooking are unlikely to cause intoxication. Trying to get drunk off vanilla extract by consuming excessive amounts is dangerous and can lead to severe adverse health effects, including alcohol poisoning. In general, you don’t want to feel the results of what happens if you drink vanilla extract.

Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives to vanilla extract that impart that delicious flavor without the added alcohol. In fact, there’s a whole world of alternatives to explore!

Alternatives to Traditional Vanilla Extract

Alternatives to Traditional Vanilla Extract

Vanilla’s rich, complex flavor translates well to non-alcoholic alternatives that make for a fine substitute for most applications. Concerns about its alcohol content, cost, or availability may make these substances a better choice. 

  • Vanilla bean paste. A concentrated form of vanilla, this paste includes the seeds of the vanilla pod, offering the visual appeal of those tiny black specks in addition to intense vanilla flavor. It's ideal for recipes where the depth of vanilla flavor is crucial, such as ice cream or vanilla cakes.
  • Vanilla powder. Made from dried and powdered vanilla beans, this option provides a strong vanilla taste without altering the liquid balance in recipes. Its powder form makes it versatile for mixing with dry ingredients for granola or oatmeal. It’s also a great addition to beverages like coffee and tea.
  • Vanilla sugar. Vanilla sugar is made with dried vanilla seeds, offering those characteristic black speckles. It works as a one-to-one substitute for regular sugar in baking and desserts and makes an excellent finishing sugar to sprinkle on top of muffins. It imparts a mild vanilla aroma and taste, making it a subtle option for a wide array of dishes.
  • Vanilla-flavored almond milk. In recipes that call for both vanilla extract and a liquid component, vanilla-flavored almond milk can get both jobs done. It eliminates the alcohol content while still imparting a vanilla essence.
  • Vanilla-flavored syrup. This sweetener is commonly used in coffee shops for lattes and other beverages. It’s a versatile addition to both drinks and desserts and makes a good substitute for vanilla extract (while also bringing down the sugar content).

  • Glycerin-based extract. Some brands sell non-alcoholic vanilla extract made with glycerin (a type of non-intoxicating sugar alcohol). Glycerin-based vanilla extract is also easy to make at home!

Each of these alternatives captures the essence of vanilla without the booze. Transitioning from traditional vanilla extract to one of these alternatives can open up a new dimension of taste in your dishes, highlighting the adaptability and creativity that comes with cooking and baking.

Conclusion

It's clear that vanilla — a beloved baking ingredient — is more than just a flavor enhancer. The alcohol-based nature of vanilla extract carries the same risks as some alcoholic beverages and may be a trigger for those in recovery. However, its popularity as a kitchen staple showcases its culinary importance rather than its potential for intoxication.

Luckily, there are many alternatives out there that allow everyone to enjoy vanilla. When we take control of our drinking habits and learn to identify our triggers, set boundaries, and remain accountable, we can move forward with an alcohol-free life.

Summary FAQs

1. Does vanilla extract have alcohol? 

Alcohol is the preferred solvent for vanilla because it’s particularly adept at extracting it from the beans.

2. How much alcohol is in vanilla extract?

Vanilla extract alcohol content varies, but according to regulations, it must contain at least 35% alcohol, sometimes more.

3. Can vanilla extract get you drunk?

Vanilla extract has about the same amount of alcohol content as most liquors, so it’s about a 1-to-1 ratio. However, drinking this amount of vanilla extract is impractical, costly, unpleasant, and carries health risks. 

4. Are there alternatives to vanilla extract?

Depending on how you intend to use it, you can try vanilla sugar, vanilla syrup, flavored or plant milks, vanilla bean paste, or vanilla powder.

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