Vanilla may be one of the most popular scents ever. It’s sweet, warm, complex and comforting. It’s versatile and blends well with a variety of other fragrance notes including sweet, spicy, floral and clean. With so many different fragrance oils featuring vanilla, you’re sure to find just the right blend for your project. But, you may be asking yourself, what about a vanilla essential oil? Can vanilla ever be natural? Good question! The short and rather unfortunate answer is 100% pure vanilla essential oils do not exist. Vanilla fragrance is easy to create synthetically in a lab, but the nature of the vanilla bean does not allow for the distillation process which produces essential oils. Before you say, “Bu, bu, bu, I’ve seen it in the stores,” there is a way to extract scent from the vanilla bean, but it’s not considered an essential oil. The aromatic compounds of the vanilla bean cannot be attained by distillation. The only way to release the aromatic compounds of the vanilla bean and other delicate plants is to introduce a solvent. Aromatic, concentrated oils from plants derived by introduction of a solvent are referred to as an “absolute.” Common absolutes made from delicate plant matter include jasmine and rose absolute. Absolutes are similar to essential oils. Both essential oils and absolutes are oils produced by plant matter. To produce an absolute, the plant material is placed into a drum and introduced to a solvent along with gentle heat. The solvent is then removed, which leaves behind a resin known as a concrète or resinoid. This resin is then treated with alcohol to separate the aromatic compounds. An absolute is the most concentrated form of plant material, and may be thicker in consistency than an essential oil produced by distillation.
When shopping for vanilla extract, the price is usually the easiest way to differentiate between the two – imitation vanilla extract is cheap, while “real” vanilla extract can be quite expensive.