Why does some "pure" vanilla contain corn syrup or sugar?

Last month I noticed that the store brand “pure” vanilla extract I had just purchased contained corn syrup, whereas the brand name version in my pantry didn’t. From the pharmaceutical industry I’m used to generic products being essentially identical to branded items, and I guess I just assumed the same was true with foods. Turns out that’s not the case, at least with vanilla.

I sent the following email to SuperValu, whose name was on the Shaw’s brand product, on December 18:

“In the past I have purchased McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract. This time I purchased Shaw’s Pure Vanilla Extract. When I compared the labels I was disappointed to see that while both products contain vanilla bean extractives in water and alcohol, the Shaw’s product also contains corn syrup.

How much corn syrup is in there and why?

It seems to me that it is misleading to refer to the product as pure and then include corn syrup. What do you think?”

I received a response within two hours. SuperValu didn’t know the answer but promised to check with the supplier to find out the answer within about five days. I was just starting to think they’d forgotten about me when I received the following email today:

“Dear Mr. Williams:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us. We welcome the opportunity to address your disappointing experience with our Shaw’s Pure Vanilla Extract.

Pure Vanilla has a standard of identity provided by the Federal Government. This means the formula must contain certain ingredients which are standard to that particular product.

The word pure indicates the vanilla flavor comes only from the extractives of the vanilla bean. The amber colored liquid known as pure vanilla must also contain, at least, 35% ethyl alcohol and is the extractives of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans. Other optional  ingredients that may be added to pure vanilla are sugar or corn syrup which enhances the delicate vanilla flavor.

If you wish to respond to this note by e-mail, please include your name and e-mail address.

We hope to have the continued pleasure of serving you.


[Name of  Person] Consumer Affairs Specialist”

Interestingly, the email was from McCormick Consumer Affairs, which I assume means McCormick makes both the branded and store brand versions on sale at Shaw’s. That’s a different story from what I see on store brand OTC medicines, which often contain explicit labels indicating they are not made by the branded producer.

This Yahoo Answers page indicates that corn syrup is used to mask inferior beans, which sounds like a logical explanation. Even if the beans are the same quality it’s probably cheaper to include some corn syrup.

In any case, it’s back to the pricier brand name version for me next time. And I still think it’s misleading to call this product “pure” even if the government allows it.


January 11, 2012

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