Vanilla comes from the orchid Vanilla planifolia. The vanilla bean is the seed pod of the orchid, and the flavor comes from the many tiny seeds inside the pod. The curing process of the vanilla bean takes 3 to 6 months until the beans are ready for use. Mexico is known for some of the best vanilla in the world. If you are taking a trip to Mexico, be sure to bring some back for yourself and friends. Here's how to buy Mexican vanilla.
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Buy coumarin-free vanilla. Coumarin is derived from the Brazilian tonka bean. The bean can be used to make flavoring very similar to vanilla. Coumarin is toxic and can cause liver damage. It is a known carcinogen. Coumarin is used extensively in synthetic vanillas manufactured in Mexico so make sure you buy real vanilla extract and not synthetic.
Look for amber-colored vanilla. Real vanilla is not clear, so despite what the label might say, if it's clear, it's not real vanilla--it's synthetic. True vanilla is amber colored. Synthetics tend to be very dark either from the coal tar from which they are produced or from caramel and red food colorings.
Avoid bargain vanilla sold in big marketplaces in Mexico and tourist shops. If you are offered a giant bottle for ten dollars, then you probably are buying synthetic vanilla. Real vanilla isn't sold in giant bottles.
Check the alcohol content on the label. Imitation vanilla in Mexico often has zero to two-percent alcohol. Cheap, poor quality vanilla will have less than 25 percent. Pure vanilla extract has approximately 35% alcohol or more according to U.S. FDA standards.
Buy vanilla from a reputable source. There are many places to buy vanilla in Mexico. In fact, you can buy it nearly everywhere. Good bets for real vanilla are spice stores, natural food stores, and shops specializing in vanilla.