Mexico is the original birthplace of gourmet vanilla, and it remains the source of some of the finest gourmet vanilla produced anywhere in the world. But Mexican vanilla has gotten an undeserved bad rap for the practices of some imitation vanilla manufacturers.
The vanilla planifolia orchid is indigenous to Mexico, which was the principal source of vanilla worldwide for many centuries. Only a small amount of real vanilla is produced in Mexico now, but it continues to be prized by connoisseurs for its smoothness, creamy richness, and bright, spicy flavor and aroma.
Mexico lost its dominance of the vanilla market in the early 1900s, after the Mexican revolution wreaked havoc on the vanilla producing operations on the Gulf Coast. Unable to produce enough to compete with new growing operations in Madagascar and Indonesia, some Mexican producers began substituting natural vanilla with cheap manufactured imitation vanilla, to which a potentially toxic compound called coumarin was added.
Not only did coumarin disguise the artificial taste, it greatly intensified the aroma and flavor of the imitation vanilla and made it seem more like the real thing. This made it possible for Mexican producers to continue to capitalize on the nation's association with top-quality natural vanilla long after long after they had actually become manufacturers of a synthetic imitation product.
However, the toxic properties of coumarin became a cause of concern when it was proven to cause liver damage in lab animals, and in the 1950s the US officially banned the use of coumarin in any foods or food additives sold in the country. Many other nations have done the same. Further research on coumarin has shown it to also be a carcinogen.
How to be sure you're buying real, natural Mexican vanilla
Though it is illegal to import imitation vanilla with coumarin into the US and other countries, it still manages to make its way to consumers. Often tourists visiting Mexico are tempted by low prices and an overwhelming aroma (which is actually typical of coumarin-laced imitation vanilla) and are convinced that they're getting a steal on the "real thing".
Here are some tips for making sure you don't get duped:
1. Pay attention to price. Real, natural Mexican vanilla is relatively rare and is definitely not cheap. In fact, it's expensive - and there are no "special bargain sales". If you're offered a low price for a large bottle, you can be certain its an imitation.
2. Pay attention to color. Real Mexican vanilla is translucent and amber colored. Most synthetics are dark and murky or perfectly clear.
3. Pay attention to alcohol content. Real gourmet vanilla is extracted by using alcohol, and according to FDA standards real vanilla extract must have an alcohol content of at least 35%. Synthetics typically contain either no alcohol at all, or have an extremely low alcohol content, no higher than 2% - 3%.