Imitation Vanilla Flavor and Bibingka


Filipino food isn’t as popular as Chinese or Thai food, but it is just as good. One Filipino food my family is particularly fond of is Bibingka.


Bibingka is a rice cake style dessert which has a milky, vanilla coconut custard flavor. It is rich and creamy like pudding, has a crunchy top coat and is chewy. We have never seen it at the supermarket, but are fortunate that have relatives or my husband to bake it for us.

The ingredients for Bibingka vary, and my husband uses butter,sweet rice flour, sugar, evaporated milk, egg, coconut milk and vanilla to make it.

Vanilla Flavor

My husband has baked so much Bibingka recently that he ran out of real vanilla extract; so he picked up some imitation vanilla flavor at the supermarket. As you can imagine, I was horrified. There is nothing better than pure vanilla extract.  Imitation vanilla flavor should not be in my kitchen.

Vanilla flavor has a place in my lab. It provides income. In 2000, a typhoon hit a major vanilla growing region and destroyed the crops. Demand for imitation vanilla replacement flavors ensued since.

Artificial Vanilla FlavorImitation vanilla flavors never taste as good as pure vanilla extract. As usual, the flavor chemist is not as clever as mother nature.

Analyzing Vanilla Extract

Flavor chemists have studied mother nature with the tools available to us: our senses, the Gas Chromatography (GC), Mass Spectrometer (MS) and High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), but we still have yet to completely understand her. Vanilla has more than 250 identified components that contribute to its flavor and it one of the most highly regulated ingredients in the food industry. In fact, vanilla is the only flavor with FDA’s Federal Standard of Identity.

Components of Vanilla Flavor

Imitation vanilla flavor does not legally have to contain vanilla bean extracts. It is often composed of aromatic compounds identified to be present in natural vanilla extracts.  These components are often vanillin (4-Hydroxy-4 methoxybenzaldehyde FEMA 3107) p-hydroxy benzaldehyde (FEMA 3984), anise alcohol (FEMA 2099), guaiacol FEMA 2532 and isovaleraldehyde FEMA 2692. Other components found in imitation vanilla flavor smell and taste like vanilla, but are not found in nature. One item is Ethyl vanillin FEMA 2464.

Curing Process

Vanilla extract gains some of its rich delicious flavor during the curing process. Vanilla bean curing is a traditional process that has been carried out for hundreds of years. It is a process that takes place over a period of about 150 days; turning an unflavored ripe vanilla bean containing about 80% water into an aromatic vanilla pod which has about 20-30% water.

Natural vanilla extract is a complex, delicious flavor and it is my favorite flavor. Given the choice, I always cook with pure vanilla extract. This is why I made my husband go back to the store and get the real thing.





  1. I am curious if 4-methyl guaiacol (= methyl group instead of aldehyde in vanillin, 2-methoxy-4-methylphenol) also gets used in artificial vanilla imitation.

    4-methyl guaiacol is present as a minor component in natural vanilla extract , (it is also present in wood smoke), and it has a deeper, more interesting and complex organoleptic profile than quaiacol (which to me smells like coarse vanilla + phenolic disinfectant). I think 4-methyl guaiacol with its hint of spice and “Russian leather” would be a good additive to add depth and complement the bland note of pure synthetic vanillin.

    • Susie Bautista says:

      Yes! Thank you for mentioning this. 4-Methyl guaiacol is available as natural or synthetic. The synthetic supplier also calls this chemical (FEMA #2671) Creosol or Valspice. Personally, I prefer Valspice to Guaiacol in imitation vanilla flavors for confection. Valspice seems to be sweeter, less medicinal and has subtle licorice notes. Both Valspice and Guaiacol are very strong, so one must be careful not to use to much in a vanilla flavor formula perhaps 0.5-5ppm as a starting point. I tend to prefer Guaiacol in applications for milk based items.

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