ADHD? Say Yes to Vanilla, No to Vanillin

This is the first of a series of posts about additives and potential effects. If you are dealing with ADD / ADHD, have a child with or know someone with adhd, you may be interested to know consuming artificial vanilla could have a nasty effect.

In the early 1970s, Dr. Benjamin Feingold, then chief emeritus of the Department of Allergy at the Kaiser Foundation Hospital and Permanente Medical Group in San Francisco, reported a link between diet and several physical and allergic conditions. Thirty to 50 percent of Feingold's hyperactive patients said they benefited from diets free of artificial colorings and flavorings, and certain natural chemicals called salicylates which are found in apples, berries, tomatoes, and other foods.
The Feingold Diet is based on the premise that allergic reactions or sensitivities to certain types of foods cause or contribute to ADD/ADHD symptoms, such as problems with:
  • Behavior (marked hyperactivity, impulsive and compulsive actions, emotional concerns)
  • Learning (short attention span, neuro-muscular difficulties, cognitive and perceptual disturbances)
  • Health (physical complaints and/or sleep problems)
Artificial flavorings are made up of hundreds of combinations of chemicals, both natural and synthetic. A popular flavoring agent is "vanillin", also listed as "vanilla flavoring".

Most chocolate chips contain it. Most store bought chocolate cake contain it, (many contain Red 40 too!).  Candy bars contain it and lots of other sweet foods have it too.  The chocolate and ice cream industry together make up 75% of the market for Vanillin flavoring.  Vanillin is also used in the fragrance industry to add hints of vanilla to perfumes, the wine business to smooth the flavor of wines,  the pharmaceutical industry to neutralize foul tasting medications, and in the process of chromatography where it is used as an all purpose stain.

Why is it used so often,'s cheap!
Today, a small amount of synthetic vanillin is made from with lignin wastes, a by-product of the paper/wood pulp industries. However, most of the synthetic vanillin is made from guaiacol, which is a petrochemical precursor.

Petrochemicals are important...for my car, for my plastic lawn chairs, maybe even for something I wear, but I do not want to be ingesting petrochemicals.  I prefer the real thing, pure vanilla to add flavor.

Read the ingredient label.  If you see Vanillin, put it back.  Look for pure vanilla.

This year I'm making several batches for holiday gifts!

Vanilla beans - 9 You can use less or more.
1.75 liter of Vodka or try Rum 
You can make the vanilla right in the liqueur bottle.  Keep it in a cool dark place but handy because everything settles at the bottom and you will want to give it a shake every few days.  The vanilla will soon take on a darker color.
If you want to make small separate batches, use 1 cup liqueur to 3 vanilla beans.  Make sure your jar is clean and has a tight fitting cap.

Using a sharp knife, slice the beans open lengthwise to expose the seeds. Put the beans in the bottle. The mixture will get darker and darker over time.
You can start using your extract by the end of the eighth week. After you have used say 20% of the extract -- top it off with more liquor (preferably of the same type) and shake again.  A tip--drop the beans in with the stem (hooked end) up. That way, if you need vanilla seeds in a recipe, you can use a little piece of wire with a hook on the end, to 'catch' one of the beans to remove it from the vodka.

Get yourself some dark or amber colored bottles and make some cute labels.  Pour your homemade vanilla into the bottles, cap, slap a label on and you have the perfect gift!  You can also leave some of the vanilla bean in the bottle and all your recipient needs to do is top off to keep the gift going indefinitely!


  1. Great blog! Feingold is wonderful resource. Do you know of chocolate chips that are both vanillin and peanut/nut free? Thanks! Ellen Campbell

  2. Thank you for reading! We use Ghirardelli but don't have the peanut issue. The one nut free I have been able to find is Enjoy Life's semi-sweet chocolate chips which state they are made in a dedicated nut free and gluten free facility. Ingredients:
    Evaporated Cane Juice, Chocolate Liquor, Non-Dairy Cocoa Butter


  3. I think you just missed an important point. Vanilla itself contains vanillin which makes up most of the flavor. However, I myself try to use real vanilla as it gives a flavor much better than any man-made version.

  4. Thanks ex123, I didn't state that and it is an important point. I try to avoid imitation as much as possible. When a label says vanillin, it means synthetic vanilla. My kids react negatively to it and I believe anyone with add/adhd tendancies would benefit from avoiding vanillin.
    Over 250 components contribute to the flavor profile of vanilla, yet only vanillin is imitated. Natural vanillin is present in vanilla beans at 2% by weight. A cheaper artificial form (USP vanillin) can be synthesized from guaiacol, a coal tar derivative; or produced from lignin, a byproduct of the paper industry. I did some research to learn more.
    Vanilla extract is the solution obtained when one dissolves the extracts of 100g of vanilla beans in 1 liter of 45%, by volume, ethanol. {Sugar can be, and often is, added.}

    Vanilla beans are harvested from the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia), a tropical plan primarily cultivated in Mexico, Indonesia, and the Malagasy Republic. The bean, when harvested, contains very little vanillin (instead, the vanillin exists as a glucoside); however upon fermenting, the beans generate vanillin which often appears as white crystals on the surface of the bean. The vanillin is readily extracted from the fermented beans with aqueous-ethanol solutions.

    Vanilla Pods
    Vanilla Extract
    As there are hundreds of additional organic compounds present in the beans, and soluble (to different extents) in aq-EtOH, vanilla extract contains principally vanillin but also several hundred additional components in trace amounts. (It is these additional complex mixtures that subtly distinguishes the flavor of vanilla extract from artificial vanilla flavor.)

    In 1986 vanilla beans sold for $30-$38 per pound. To be most precise, a vanilla extract, as defined by a standard of the Food and Drug Administration, "is the solution, containing not less than 35% alcohol, of the sapid and odorous principles extracted from one or more units of vanilla consitutent. One unit of vanilla consituent is 13.35 oz of vanilla beans containing not more than 25% moisture in 1 gal of finished product. No addition of artificial vanillin is permitted in products designed as vanilla extract". (Martin, 1977)

    I find it all very interesting and just wish there weren't so many short cuts in the food industry.

  5. This information has been very helpful! Thank you for sharing your observation and the supporting factual details!

  6. I've started making my own vanilla and it really is so easy!

  7. You're telling me that a mental illness is caused by vanillin? An organic compound that's been commercially used since the late 19th century is just now causing mental illness? One type is biosynthetic vanillin that can be labeled as natural flavoring because microorganisms can produce it. Oh and byproducts aren't always bad. Lanolin, soybean meal, and offal are byproducts.

  8. Oh and I suffered from an eating disorder so I got a dietitian to help me recover. Even though I rarely touched vanillin due to my meal plan, my ADHD symptoms hadn't/ haven't changed at all.

  9. Thank you for stopping by and your comments. No, Vanillin does not cause mental illness and by products are not always bad. The problem lies with those who are sensitive to such elements. Vanillin is an extremely cheap alternative to vanilla extract. Artificial vanillin has been shown in research to suppress certain liver enzymes (Bamforth 1993), and according to Aoshima, 1997, it inhibits the GABA receptor response, suggesting that it could modulate the neural transmission in the brain. Vanillin is found in many chocolate candies in the US. You are smart to get help from a dietician and I am glad you have not noticed any ill effects from vanillin. A big factor for many people who struggle with ADD/ADHD is artificial colors like red 40, yellow 5/6, etc. We read every single label and removing these additives in our familys diet has helped.


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