V is for vanilla extract and imitation vanilla

Vanilla extract is the only flavoring deemed important enough for the federal government to officially define standards for

vanilla extractMy daughter had taken some course in middle school that involved cooking. Yes, the class had BOTH boys and girls. One of the things the students could NOT bring to school was vanilla extract. But they COULD bring imitation vanilla.

Vacationing with my wife’s family this past summer, one of my in-laws wondered whether imitation vanilla contained alcohol. I surmised that it did not. If it did, why allow it and not permit vanilla extract in school?

But I had not looked it up util the next day, when I found an intriguing 2015 article called Why Don’t You Buy Vanilla Extract in a Liquor Store? The subtitle notes it is “the same proof as vodka or rum, yet we buy it at the supermarket. Here’s why.”

“You have to go back to the years just before Prohibition, when trade groups and manufacturers… realized that the only way to save their industries was to lobby politicians to write in legal loopholes that would allow them to continue operating.

“Vanilla extract doesn’t just rely on alcohol to extract the essential flavors and fragrances from the vanilla bean and suspend them in a stable solution—it’s also required by law to have an alcohol content of at least 35 percent. (Vanilla extract is also the only flavoring deemed important enough for the federal government to officially define standards for.)

“In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was made the law of the land, and the U.S. was, at least on paper, now an alcohol-free country. But the actual legal mechanisms for enforcing the amendment weren’t in place yet.

“Seeing their last chance to avert disaster, [the Flavor and Extracts Manufacturers Association] flooded congressmen with telegrams… By the time the Volstead Act went into effect the following year, it included a clause that made an exemption for flavor extracts—as long as they were deemed non-potable and a reasonable person wouldn’t want to drink them straight.”

The story has more fun facts, especially about money, but also concerning what a “reasonable person” means.

Imitation vanilla is made from synthetic vanillin, which is the compound that naturally occurs in vanilla beans and gives it that distinctive flavor.” It is cheaper and contains no alcohol.

Those are the rules in the United States. How does the rest of the world treat vanilla extract?

For ABC Wednesday

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