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Why Are Extracts Swimming in Alcohol?

 You answered the question regarding "how long it takes for alcohol to burn off." But my question is, why is there alcohol in extracts like vanilla, maple, etc. to begin with? We all use vanilla extract in chocolate chip cookies for our children (and eat the dough ourselves, I might add). Is it really necessary? Are there alternatives? Can we buy substitutes that compare to the real thing? Now I am really concerned.

 We are generally trying to ease people's eating concerns, not raise them.

The taste and fragrance of many plants are contained in their essential oils, and those oils are easily extracted by distilling them and dissolving them in alcohol, which keeps the oil in suspension. Almond, vanilla, and the various citrus flavors are examples. It's not that someone decided all of a sudden that it would be a clever way to hook kids on alcohol, just a food production process that's developed over a couple hundred years. The oils are not soluble in water.

Maple, butterscotch, banana, and other flavors cannot be extracted in the same way, so artificial flavorings have been developed that mimic the natural scents and flavors. You can decide for yourself whether the makers are successful. Some of these have alcohol; some don't. You'll have to read the labels.

Some years ago, those wacky kids at Cook's Illustrated did a taste test of pure vanilla extract vs. imitation vanilla extract (which generally includes alcohol). They found that so little is used in most recipes, their trained tasters couldn't tell the difference between the two, so they said you might as well use imitation. Our point is that many people would feel comfortable adding a teaspoon of vanilla to a batch of cookie dough, knowing that one-third of that teaspoon is alcohol, but also knowing that it will be dispersed among four dozen cookies or so – which is something less than a half a drop per cookie, and some portion of that will evaporate during baking.

We have spoken with people at the government's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who speak of the psychological aspect of alcoholism, and how that people who have had trouble with alcohol abuse should not be given alcohol or even alcohol substitutes. But we also don’t think anyone is going to gorge themselves on chocolate chip cookies for the alcohol content. But people who cannot consume any alcohol in any form must take care.

There are substitutes for alcohol-laden extracts. You can find alcohol-free vanilla, where glycerin is the carrying agent (although legally it can't be called extract). You can purchase and use vanilla beans and buy or make vanilla sugar. There are alcohol-free products for most every flavoring you can name. The challenge is finding them. Many natural foods stores carry some of them, but you'll almost certainly have to go online – yes, and pay shipping costs – for some of the less mainstream flavors .

Nature's Flavors is an online source for non-alcoholic (and often certified kosher, vegan, and gluten-free) apple, vanilla, cherry, strawberry, chocolate, cinnamon, lemon, peppermint, orange, raspberry, peach, pineapple, banana, boysenberry, caramel, coconut, kiwi, lime, mango, wintergreen, ginger, and many other flavors. There are certainly other sources, as well.

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