Why is vanilla not gluten free?

Vanilla is a popular flavoring that is used in everything from ice cream to perfume. It comes from the seed pods of the vanilla orchid plant. Vanilla extract and vanilla beans are commonly used in baking and cooking to add a sweet, aromatic flavor. Despite being a plant-based ingredient, pure vanilla is not considered gluten-free. This raises the question – why is vanilla not gluten free?

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale. It helps baked goods rise and gives elasticity to dough. For those with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine. This can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue and headaches. The only treatment is a strict lifelong gluten-free diet.

Sources of Gluten

Gluten is naturally found in:

  • Wheat
  • Barley
  • Rye
  • Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)

It can also be found in foods processed with these grains or foods that pick up traces of gluten through cross-contamination. Some potential sources of hidden gluten include:

  • Bread, baked goods and pasta
  • Beer
  • Soy sauce
  • Salad dressings and sauces
  • Processed meats
  • Fried foods
  • Oats (unless certified gluten-free)

What Makes a Food Gluten-Free?

For a food to be considered gluten-free, it must meet the following requirements:

  • Does not contain wheat, rye, barley or triticale
  • Does not derive from these grains
  • Does not contain an ingredient derived from these grains that has not been processed to remove gluten
  • Has less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten

20 ppm is the lowest amount of gluten that can reliably be detected in foods. Even tiny amounts of gluten from cross-contamination can trigger issues for those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Therefore, foods must meet this strict cutoff to be labeled gluten-free.

Why Isn’t Vanilla Naturally Gluten-Free?

Given that vanilla comes from an orchid plant, it may seem strange that it could contain gluten. However, the vanilla extract sold today is made by percolating vanilla beans in a solution of ethanol and water. The source of the ethanol is generally grains, like corn, wheat or barley.

Grain alcohol derived from wheat or barley can pick up traces of gluten in the distilling process. The FDA currently allows foods labeled “gluten-free” to contain up to 20 ppm of gluten from cross-contamination. If vanilla extract exceeds this threshold, it cannot legally be considered gluten-free.

Testing for Gluten

Several organizations, like the Celiac Support Association and Celiac Sprue Association, have tested various brands of pure vanilla extract over the years. Many major brands tested above 20 ppm of gluten:

Brand Gluten Level Detected
McCormick 23-49 ppm
Spice Islands 170 ppm
Rodelle 117 ppm

This indicates that the vanilla extracts contained gluten from a grain alcohol source like wheat or barley that was not fully gluten-free. Some brands that tested below 20 ppm include Adams Extract, Nielsen-Massey and Watkins.

Labeling Standards

Currently, the FDA does not require that vanilla extract be labeled “gluten-free.” Many brands simply list “alcohol” without specifying the grain source. However, some companies voluntarily label their vanilla “gluten-free” if it tests below 20 ppm.

Look for brands that are Certified Gluten-Free by GFCO (Gluten Free Certification Organization). This independent certification ensures the product contains less than 10 ppm of gluten.

Buying Gluten-Free Vanilla Extract

So how can you be sure you’re purchasing gluten-free vanilla extract? Here are a few tips:

  • Look for bottles labeled “gluten-free.” This means the product has been tested to verify it meets the 20 ppm cutoff.
  • Check for certification by GFCO, NSF, GIG or another auditing organization. Certification programs require rigorous testing.
  • Call or email the manufacturer to ask about their gluten testing process and policies if it’s unclear from the label.
  • Opt for alcohol-free vanilla extract, which avoids the issue of gluten grains used in distilling. Brands like Amoretti offer alcohol-free options.
  • Purchase vanilla beans and make your own gluten-free extract using vodka or gluten-free alcohol.

Cost Analysis

Gluten-free vanilla extract tends to cost $1-3 more per bottle compared to standard supermarket brands:

Brand Price Ounces Price Per Ounce
McCormick Pure Vanilla $5.29 2 oz $2.65
Rodelle Gourmet Gluten-Free $8.99 4 oz $2.25
Watkins Gluten Free $10.99 4 oz $2.75

The higher cost reflects the need for gluten testing and certification. For gluten-free consumers, the extra dollars provide important peace of mind and assurance.

Risks of Vanilla for Gluten-Sensitive Individuals

What happens if someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity consumes vanilla extract that contains traces of gluten? Here are some potential risks and concerns:

  • Intestinal damage: Any amount of gluten can trigger an autoimmune reaction causing inflammation and damage to the small intestine. This can hinder nutrient absorption.
  • Symptom flare-up: Ingesting gluten may cause abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, brain fog and fatigue. Symptoms often take days or weeks to subside after a gluten exposure.
  • Increased cancer risk: Research shows that continued consumption of gluten increases risk for small intestinal cancers like lymphoma for those with celiac disease.
  • False security: Those with celiac disease must adhere to a strict lifelong gluten-free diet. Consuming unlabeled sources of gluten can provide a false sense of security.

Thankfully, most cooks use relatively small amounts of vanilla extract in recipes. However, repeated or long-term exposure to traces of gluten can be damaging over time.

Finding Other Gluten-Free Vanilla Options

If you need to avoid vanilla extract due to gluten concerns, there are a few options:

1. Substitute Vanilla Bean Paste

Vanilla bean paste is made by infusing vanilla bean seeds into a thick syrup or sugar solution. The seeds provide intense vanilla flavor without added alcohol or risk of gluten. Replace vanilla extract 1:1 in recipes.

2. Use Vanilla Powder

Vanilla powder is made by grinding dehydrated vanilla beans into a fine powder. It gives great flavor without alcohol or gluten. Use about 1 tsp powder per 1 tsp vanilla extract.

3. Opt for Alcohol-Free Vanilla

Some brands like Amoretti offer vanilla extract made without alcohol. The flavor comes directly from vanilla beans without risk of gluten grain alcohol. Swap at a 1:1 ratio for regular extract.

4. Make Your Own Extract

It’s easy to make homemade vanilla extract using vodka or rum and vanilla beans. Use gluten-free alcohol and beans not processed alongside wheat. Store for 1-2 months before use.

Other Potential Sources of Gluten in Vanilla Products

Aside from vanilla extract, certain other vanilla-flavored products may contain hidden sources of gluten:

Vanilla Syrup

Many vanilla syrups contain caramel color, an additive derived from corn that may be processed on equipment shared with wheat. Torani and DaVinci make gluten-free vanilla syrups.

Vanilla Powder

Some vanilla powder includes wheat starch or maltodextrin as an anti-caking agent. Choose pure vanilla bean powder instead.

Vanilla Yogurt

The vanilla flavor in yogurt often comes from plant-derived compounds, not real vanilla beans. However, gluten-containing grains may be used. Only choose brands labeled gluten-free.

Vanilla Protein Powder

Many protein powders contain wheat- or barley-derived ingredients. Carefully read labels and look for powders that are third-party tested.

Vanilla Soy Milk

Soy milk is naturally gluten-free. However, read labels to ensure added vanilla flavorings and stabilizers do not contain gluten.

Vanilla Ice Cream

Ice cream may contain gluten from cookie pieces, malt flavoring or barley malt. Many brands like Breyers, Ben and Jerry’s and So Delicious offer gluten-free vanilla options.

How to Substitute Vanilla Extract in Gluten-Free Baking

Here are some simple substitutions to use in place of questionable vanilla extract in gluten-free recipes:

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract = 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract = 2 teaspoons vanilla powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract = 1 teaspoon gluten-free alcohol-free vanilla

In general, you can replace vanilla extract 1:1 with any other liquid vanilla flavoring as long as it’s gluten-free. Molasses, maple syrup or almond extract can also be subbed in similar quantities to add flavor if you’re out of vanilla options.

Reduce the amount of vanilla powder used slightly since it has a more concentrated flavor. If a recipe already calls for vanilla bean paste or powder, simply omit the extract without needing to add more of the other vanilla products.

Tips for Converting Recipes

Here are some tips for adapting recipes to be gluten-free if they call for questionable vanilla extract:

  • Swap vinegar or lemon juice 1:1 for vanilla if just needing liquid to thin a batter.
  • Replace extract with alcohol-free vanilla for richer desserts like ice cream or custard.
  • Use vanilla powder in dry baked goods like cookies, muffins or waffles.
  • Add extra vanilla beans when infusing liquids like custard or pudding.
  • Increase amounts of other flavor extracts like almond, orange, peppermint, etc.

Getting creative with flavors and textures can help you work around vanilla extract if needed for gluten-free, vegan or alcohol-free diets.

Cooking and Baking Without Vanilla Extract

Don’t have any vanilla on hand or need to avoid it altogether? You have options for baking and cooking without vanilla extract!

Enhance Other Flavors

Pump up complementary flavors for a flavor boost without vanilla. Useful alternatives include:

  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg
  • Ginger
  • Lemon
  • Almond
  • Coconut
  • Peppermint
  • Instant coffee


Boosting the sweetness can help compensate for lack of vanilla flavor. Options include:

  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Brown sugar
  • Molasses


Adding extra butter or oil can help achieve a richer flavor and texture:

  • Butter
  • Coconut oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Cream

Secret Weapons

Some secret flavor enhancers to use in place of vanilla include:

  • Instant coffee
  • Cocoa powder
  • Extracts like almond, mint, orange
  • Ground ginger
  • Lemon zest

Start with small amounts and adjust to taste when subbing these ingredients for vanilla extract.


While pure vanilla extract from vanilla beans seems like it should be gluten-free, many major brands contain traces of gluten from grain alcohol used during processing. To enjoy vanilla flavor safely on a gluten-free diet, choose products that are specifically labeled “gluten-free” or third-party certified.

Opting for alcohol-free vanilla, vanilla bean paste or homemade extract can help avoid any risk of gluten contamination. Thankfully, vanilla extract can also be swapped for other gluten-free flavorings or omitted altogether in recipes if needed.

By understanding potential sources of gluten and using substitutions, those avoiding gluten can continue enjoying delicious foods with vanilla flavor. Careful selection of labeled gluten-free brands provides peace of mind so the benefits of a gluten-free diet can be reaped.

Leave a Comment