Pure vanilla extract is gluten free. That’s the answer to a question that’s asked often by people who are gluten intolerant, based on the fact that vanilla extract is made using alcohol and most alcohol is made from grain. This is particularly good news for people living with celiac disease because vanilla makes the world a happier place.

Only use trusted brands of pure vanilla extract

Remember, only brands labelled as Pure vanilla extract that use naturally-distilled alcohol are truly gluten free. Always read the label on a bottle of store-bought brands and avoid any product that does not meet the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) criteria for pure vanilla extract.The FDA classifies vanilla extract as Pure if it contains a minimum of 35% alcohol (usually ethanol) and 100 grams per litre (13.35 ounces per gallon) of liquid. The rest of the solution should only be water. The FDA limits all other ingredients used in the manufacturing process to mimic the taste and aroma of vanilla.The FDA has paid particularly close attention to vanilla extract in recent years, largely because of the amount of fraud and false claims within the vanilla industry. At the end of the day, imitation vanilla extract is made using synthetic vanillin which is made from a by-product of the pulp industry. Most imitation vanilla contains ingredients like corn syrup, artificial sweetener and/or colour dye to mimic the flavour and look of natural vanilla extract.

Why only pure vanilla extract is safe

The vanilla extract market is not well regulated and there are hundreds of imitation brands on the market that are made using harmful chemicals and preservatives which are obviously not good for you. Even some quality brands that meet the FDA requirements of pure vanilla extract use a cheap alcohol base to keep the price down.Imitation vanilla extract is made from synthetic vanillin which is the compound that occurs naturally in vanilla beans and what gives the extract its distinctive aroma and taste. Synthetic vanillin is made using anything from coal tar, pine park or fermented bran to cow poop and secretions from a beaver’s castor glands (near its anus).More commonly, synthetic vanillin is made from lignin waste (wood polymer) which is a by-product of the pulp industry, mostly from the process of making paper. You really don’t know what goes into imitation vanilla extract but we know for sure that in order to cut costs and meet the demand for vanilla flavouring, the products are not pure and contain harmful chemicals and preservatives.On top of that, manufactures of fake vanilla extract add ingredients like glycerin, invert sugar, glucose, propylene glycol and sugar to the solution. These either act as flavor enhancers or speed up the extraction process.The other thing that’s added is caramel colour dye, otherwise imitation vanilla has no colour and stands out as fake against the rich, dark-brown colour of pure vanilla extract. The colour dye used in imitation vanilla may contain malt syrup from barley, starches from wheat and even lactose.To be completely safe, particularly if you’re dangerously intolerant of gluten, we recommend you make your own homemade vanilla extract if you can’t find a trusted brand of pure vanilla extract.Learn more about the uses of Vanilla Powder.

Why is pure vanilla extract gluten free if it contains alcohol?

 It’s all about the distillation process.To be gluten free, vanilla extract must be made using naturally distilled alcohol. The FDA allows distilled alcohol in foods labeled gluten-free regardless of the starting material which may be wheat, barley or rye. This is because the alcohol distillation process removes almost all traces of gluten making it safe to consume, much like distilled vinegar.An ingredient derived from a grain containing gluten that has been properly distilled passes as a gluten-free product. Distilled alcohols are often labelled as “processed to remove gluten”, meaning the product was distilled from grains containing gluten where some or all of the gluten is removed.To understand this better, here is an excerpt from The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide (Tricia Thompson, McGraw-Hill, 2008). “Alcoholic beverages are either fermented or distilled. Fermented and distilled beverages are made by first converting starch or sugar from a food source (for example, grapes, wheat, or potato) to alcohol, using yeast.With fermented beverages, such as beer, the liquid removed from the mash (the mixture of starting materials) is boiled. If a gluten-containing grain is one of the food sources used to make the mash, the liquid removed from the mash is not gluten-free.With distilled beverages, such as vodka, the liquid removed from the mash is not only boiled but also distilled. Distillation is used to increase the alcohol content of the beverage. When the liquid is boiled, the vapor is “captured” and cooled.The resulting liquid is called the distillate. Distillation separates substances that are volatile (meaning they vaporize) from less volatile substances. Protein is not volatile and does not vaporize. Consequently, even if wheat, barley, or rye was used to make a distilled alcoholic beverage, gluten-containing proteins will not be found in the final distillate.

 Is vodka gluten free? 

This question is important because pastry chefs and home bakers usually use vodka to make homemade vanilla extract. This is because vodka has a neutral taste and doesn’t change the flavour profile of the dessert or detract from the natural taste and aromatic flavour of vanilla.Most vodka is made from cereal grains that contain gluten, including wheat, barley or rye. As discussed, the distillation process removes the harmful gluten proteins, meaning vodka – and all other naturally-distilled alcohol for that matter – are essentially gluten free.However, because vodka contains gluten-containing ingredients – the starting material – it is not permitted to be labelled as gluten free, even though no gluten is left in the product. 

Did you know?It’s easy to make homemade vanilla extract that’s gluten free… and it’s cheaper than store-bought

All you need are 3 to 4 fresh vanilla beans and 1 cup of naturally distilled alcohol. Most people use vodka and the brand with the highest proof of vodka, the better. Slice each vanilla bean lengthwise; open it up but keep the two pieces connected, leaving an inch intact on either end.Place the split vanilla beans in a glass jar and pour the vodka over them. Close with a lid that seals tightly and leave in a cool, dark place for anything from 6 weeks to 3 months, allowing time for the gorgeous vanilla beans to infuse in the alcohol.Gently shake the bottle regularly and replace the vanilla beans with fresh ones after a period of time. Homemade vanilla extract can last for up to a year and longer if stored correctly.