We devoured pint after pint to get the scoop on vanilla ice cream — and uncovered the best-tasting brand along the way.
Go to the freezer section of your local supermarket and you’re bound to find a number of brands peddling vanilla ice cream. Sounds fine, right? However, there’s a problem lurking among the labels: Brands that print phrases like “natural vanilla” on their packages may actually be pushing products that contain anything but.
RELATED: Want to make your own ice cream? Arm yourself with the best recipes and detailed video tutorials (try it for free).
In our America’s Test Kitchen TV taste test segment for supermarket vanilla ice cream, Jack Bishop explains that counterfeit vanilla is a bigger problem than one might think, and implores smart shoppers to read labels before buying a pint of the stuff.
“Vanilla extract is the key to buying ice cream with good vanilla flavor,” says Bishop. “If it doesn’t say vanilla extract, walk on by.”
Bishop explains to co-host Christopher Kimball that shoppers might see the words “natural vanilla flavor” printed on ice cream cartons. “Sounds pretty good, right? It’s actually imitation extract made from wood pulp.”
Vanilla flavoring was all over the map in the 8 ice creams we included in our taste test, ranging from barely detectable in some to overpowering in others. We looked on the back of the cartons and noticed that each brand seemed to list vanilla in a different way—as Bishop explained—from the wordy and virtuous “fair-traded certified vanilla extract” to “natural vanilla flavor” to simply “vanilla.” Dairy expert Scott Rankin, a professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained that the different wordings on the labels amount to an industry shorthand for specific kinds of natural or artificial flavorings. As he helped us break the code, we looked at our favorite (and not-so-favorite) ice creams according to the type of vanilla.
First, a little background: The flavor in vanilla beans is predominantly due to the presence of a compound known as vanillin. Vanillin is produced three ways: from vanilla beans, from wood, and from resins. The first two types are considered natural, while the vanillin from resins is synthetic. Not surprisingly, our top three top-ranked brands all contained the real deal—“vanilla extract”—natural vanillin extracted from vanilla beans, just like the real vanilla extract in your pantry. Less favored brands were made with vanillin extracted from wood (“natural vanilla flavor”), which is chemically identical to the synthetic vanillin found in artificial vanilla extract. Simple “vanilla” turned out to be code for a combination of synthetic and natural vanillin, while “natural flavors” (with no mention of vanilla at all) indicates just a trace of natural vanilla (there’s no required level) and other flavorings such as nutmeg that merely trigger an association.
Bottom line: Our tasters strongly preferred brands containing real vanilla extract.
Bishop goes on to criticize brands for trying to dupe their customers into believing they’re buying the real deal, when in fact they’re buying something artificial. “Natural flavors mean it has flavors that are supposed to trigger an association with vanilla,” explains Bishop. Kimball, busy with a spoonful of vanilla ice cream (fake or real we haven’t found out yet), offers an approving chuckle.
Kimball proceeds to blind-taste 4 brands of vanilla ice cream on camera and, unsurprisingly, disapproves of those that (he soon learns after the brands are revealed) use imitation vanilla.
Was Kimball able to find a supermarket brand of vanilla ice cream that actually tasted like good, old-fashioned vanilla? Read our findings, watch the video, and see for yourself.
DID YOU KNOW? “French” vanilla isn’t a variety of vanilla (those come from Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico), but rather a technique used in ice cream making. While American (also known as Philadelphia) vanilla ice cream is an uncooked mixture of cream, milk, sugar, and vanilla, French vanilla ice cream begins with a cooked custard containing egg yolks. The presence of egg yolks gives French vanilla ice cream a denser, richer texture and smooth consistency, as well as a yellowish color. The vanilla flavor, however, is no different from that of ice cream made with a similar amount and type of vanilla using the Philadelphia technique.