Is Vanilla Extract Healthy? Benefits, Side Effects, and Uses

Learn about vanilla extract, its impact on blood sugar, the difference between vanilla extract and flavor, eight research-based health benefits, side effects, and tips for incorporating vanilla extract into your diet.

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by
Sarah Bullard, MS, RD, LD
— Signos
Dietitian and Nutrition Writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
June 6, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Is Vanilla Extract Healthy? Benefits, Side Effects, and Uses 

Vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world. Over 500 years ago, in South America, the Aztecs prized vanilla, and it was associated with nobility. Vanilla is a favorite and common ingredient in foods, beverages, essential oils, and perfumes.1 

Today, Madagascar produces 75% of the world’s vanilla and is considered the second most expensive spice in the world due to it being one of the most labor-intensive crops. Vanilla comes from mature pods of the vanilla orchid Vanilla planifolia. While vanilla is a mixture of approximately 200 compounds, the distinctive flavor and fragrance come from the vanillin compound.1 

Current research focuses on its potential to improve health and prevent disease. 

In this article, you’ll learn if vanilla extract is healthy, its impact on blood sugar, the difference between vanilla extract and vanilla flavor, eight health benefits, and tips for using it. 

What is Vanilla Extract? Does it Spike Blood Sugar?

Vanilla extract is a mixture created by combining cured vanilla beans, which are harvested from the vanilla plant, and alcohol. The vanilla beans release vanillin when soaked in alcohol. Commercial extraction of vanillin from vanilla beans uses high-technology machines to help the process. Natural vanilla extraction is expensive due to the machines and long curing process of vanilla beans.1

To meet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) federal regulations, pure vanilla extract contains 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon. Vanilla extract is vanillin, alcohol, and water.2 

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Vanilla Extract Nutrition Facts and Glycemic Index

One serving of vanilla extract is typically one teaspoon for baking recipes. In one teaspoon of vanilla extract, there are:

  • 12 calories
  • 0.5 g of carbohydrates (from naturally occurring sugars).3

The glycemic index is a 100-point scale that measures your blood glucose response after eating a specific food. High glycemic index foods raise blood sugar levels quickly. Low glycemic index foods are digested slower, leading to a slower rise.

Low-glycemic foods are rated at 55 or less, medium-level glycemic index foods are 56-69, and high-glycemic foods at 70-100.4 

Vanilla extract has a glycemic index of 5, which is considered low.5 Vanilla extract will not cause blood sugar spikes and can add a pleasant flavor to foods, desserts, and drinks. 

Pure Vanilla Extract vs. Vanilla Flavor: Key Differences

So far, in this article, pure vanilla extract has been discussed. You may have seen vanilla flavor or imitation vanilla flavor in your local grocery store for a lower price than vanilla extract. 

The lower price is due to the lengthy process (6 months) to cure pure vanilla.6 Pure vanilla extract ranges from $1,200 to 4,000 per kg, whereas vanilla flavor costs $15 per kg.1 

After curing for six months, the extraction process is completed by machines in a day. If you were to make pure vanilla extract at home, the extraction process could take another six to twelve months.7 

Vanilla flavor or imitation vanilla is made through chemical processes that make vanillin by-products. No vanilla pods are used in the process. The two most common methods are from guaiacol and lignin chemical reactions in a lab where synthetic vanillin is created quickly and then added to a water and alcohol mixture.8 This can be done quickly and economically. 

The vanillin compound gives the desired flavor or fragrance. Many companies strive to create a cost-effective way to offer vanillin (typically imitation vanillin) for the over 18,000 products that use it for flavor or fragrance.

You may also notice different varieties of pure vanilla, such as Tahitian Vanilla, which is farmed and manufactured on Tahiti. The vanilla plant grown around the world may taste a bit different, so have fun experimenting with multiple varieties.  

8 Health Benefits of Vanilla Extract You Didn't Know About

Vanilla extract offers many health benefits. Vanillin is known to have both antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as being neuroprotective, antifungal, antibacterial, boost antibiotics, and helpful for wound healing.1 Research supporting these health benefits is preliminary and in animals or in-vitro (test tube).

Provides antibacterial properties

In test-tube studies, vanillin slowed the growth of several bacteria, including E. Coli and Listeria.1 More research is needed to understand and apply this knowledge. 

Interestingly, vanillin enhanced antibiotic use, so it worked better against resistant bacteria in laboratories. The bacteria used were Escherichia coli 06, Staphylococcus aureus 10, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa 24.9 This is a novel approach to help use antibiotics wisely and preserve their effectiveness. 

Has antidepressant effects

Vanillin and its fragrance have been studied for their ability to impact mood. A small study on 25 adults found that vanillin evoked more positive emotions than room air and other scents. The researchers concluded that vanillin should be studied further as it can change mood.10 This correlation is also why vanilla is popularly used in aromatherapy. 

Vanillin was given to a small group of mice in varying doses compared to mice receiving antidepressants. The mice given the higher amount of vanillin demonstrated antidepressant activity, comparable with the mice receiving the antidepressant.11  

Reduces cholesterol and glucose levels

The antidiabetic effect of vanillin has been studied in vitro and on animals (rats). Type 2 diabetes was induced in rats; then, the rats were divided into a high or low dose of vanillin for five weeks. Vanillin reduces blood glucose levels, cholesterol, triglycerides, and other metabolic lab markers.12 

Other studies on obese rats supported previous results that vanillin lowers glucose and cholesterol levels and improves insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.13 

Vanillin is promising for its ability to lower cholesterol and glucose levels. 

Promotes good gut bacteria

Good gut bacteria are beneficial for preventing illness, disease prevention, and management. Studies have found an interdependence between gut bacteria and diabetes. 

Vanillin has been found to alter the gut bacteria in obese mice with type 2 diabetes. Vanillin reduces some bacteria in the gut that are associated with high levels of inflammation and disease.12 

It is unclear if vanillin reduced glucose and cholesterol levels which caused the gut bacteria change, or if vanillin directly altered the gut bacteria. Both outcomes are positive for health.12 

It acts as a powerful antioxidant.

The human body usually manages stress and inflammation caused by oxidants and free radicals. The body increases oxidants due to pollution, environmental factors, poor diet, stress, smoking, and excess sun. 

Boosting the body with antioxidant-rich foods and beverages helps reverse oxidation and inflammation. 

The vanillin compound has shown strong antioxidant capacity in rats and laboratory tests. It works as a scavenger of oxidants to neutralize them. This effect has not been demonstrated in humans at this time.1 

Many studies have reported the antioxidant ability of vanillin to stop tumor growth in rats and test tubes.14 Vanillin is being studied to help create new medications for cancer. 

It helps support weight loss.

In rats, vanillin has been able to lower cholesterol and glucose levels. 

At the same time, body weight and fat loss were seen in the obese rats. It was also found that the mice consuming vanillin accumulated less fat in the entire body, particularly in the liver.13 

Vanillin may help prevent fat gain and promote weight loss.

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Help reduce added sugar intake.

Vanilla is considered to be a pleasing taste by most and is associated with a sweet flavor despite its minimal calorie and sugar content.  

Food scientists are working on using vanillin in food products to maintain the sweet taste but reduce the added sugar content.15 

Researchers have compared the enhancing effect to the sweetness of different aromas, including vanilla. Participants ranked products with vanilla added as the highest for sweet aroma and taste compared to banana, elderflower, raspberry, and honey.16 

Adding vanilla to foods and beverages may help consumers perceive the food's sweetness and desirability when reducing sugar content. 

It may promote brain health.

Animal research shows that cognitive impairment and specifically Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington’ Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease, can be preserved with the use of vanillin. 

The antioxidant capacity and strong scavenger activity are thought to reduce inflammation from neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, in an animal study, animals with each type of cognitive impairment showed improved memory or motor function tests and antioxidant activity related to each disease.1,17 Vanillin is helpful for brain health

Potential Side Effects of Vanilla Extract

Vanilla is considered to be a safe compound with minimal side effects of interactions. Toxicology studies on rats confirm that it is safe even at high levels, and there was no toxic effect on the kidney, liver, or blood cells.1 

Occasionally, some people have mild reactions like skin irritation. If you notice any side effects, discontinue use and speak with your doctor. 

How to Use Vanilla Extract

Vanilla extract is a popular flavoring, especially in sweet desserts and drinks. Think of all the coffee shops using vanilla in their beverages! Here are some ways you can use vanilla extract.

  • Ice cream
  • Baked goods
  • Homemade energy bars or bites
  • Yogurt (Greek or regular)
  • Coffee (hot or cold versions)
  • Herbal tea
  • Hot cereals like oatmeal
  • Pasta sauces
  • Smoothies

How to Make Healthy Homemade Vanilla Extract 

Vanilla extract is relatively simple to make; it just takes patience. More specifically, six to twelve months of patience to make homemade vanilla extract.

Start by taking 5-6 vanilla beans and slit them with a sharp knife. Place the beans in a bottle or jar and pour one cup of 80-proof vodka (bourbon, brandy, or rum) on top. Place lid on jar and shake. Store vanilla at room temperature out of direct sunlight. 

Shake once every couple of weeks. The flavor reaches its peak after six to twelve months. Vanilla has a long shelf-life of at least one year.7 

3 Healthy Recipes with Vanilla Extract to Try Out

1. Cinnamon and vanilla chai tea

Try this low-sugar version of chai tea with vanilla to gain health benefits. The brown sugar can be omitted altogether, and non-dairy milk can be used to make this tea gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free. 

2. Vanilla chia pudding

Make mornings or snack time simple with this chia pudding. This pudding’s high protein, fiber, and healthy fat will fill you up. It stays for five to six days in the refrigerator. This recipe is gluten-free and dairy-free. 

3. Bliss balls

Bliss balls are like your favorite energy bite but with a berry infusion. They are a great source of healthy fats and protein and can be adapted to accommodate many food allergies. This version is gluten-free, dairy-free, and refined sugar-free. 

Learn More About Healthy Nutrition with Signos’ Expert Advice

The research on vanilla extract is preliminary but promising for its health benefits. Vanilla extract can be a healthful addition to your diet. Incorporating new foods and flavors can take planning and help. A continuous glucose monitor (CGM) can help you know how your body responds to different foods and flavorings.

A Signos’ CGM can help you improve your health. Take a quick quiz to determine if Signos is a good fit for you. Learn more about nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog.

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References

About the author

Sarah Bullard is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in research and clinical nutrition, personalized nutrition counseling, and nutrition education.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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