Cinnamon

Most of the cinnamon sold in the U.S. is cassia, not cinnamon.  Cassia, grown mainly in Vietnam or China, is related to Ceylon, which is considered the “real” cinnamon.  The cassia bark is hotter and more abrasive than the lighter, more aromatic Ceylon.  The sticks are fairly easy to tell apart – Ceylon quills are composed of many paper-thin layers rolled up, while Cassia is a single sheet of bark – but once the “cinnamon” is ground, the anonymous brown dust might be neither Ceylon nor Cassia but something else entirely.  The most common offender in this cinnamon fraud is coffee husks – nice in a coffee cherry tea, if that’s what you’re going for, not so great in your scones.

How to make sure you’re getting the real thing: Look for real Ceylon cinnamon on the label.

 

Black Pepper

Like ground cinnamon,  ground black pepper is another item that is practically inscrutable in powder form.  Researchers have found starch, flour, buckwheat, millet, papaya seeds, juniper berries, pepper stems and chaff all lurking in what claims to be black pepper.

How to make sure you’re getting the real thing: As with coffee, it’s always better to go whole, both taste-wise and to avoid spicing your dinner with colored starch.

 

Vanilla

The second most expensive spice is also ripe for the faking.  Vanilla extract is an aged solution of vanilla beans macerated in alcohol and water and is the most common form of vanilla and less costly than the whole beans.   Much imitation vanilla is made from vanillin, an organic compound that is typically synthesized in a lab, and makes no bones about being a cheaper, if inauthentic, alternative.  But synthetic vanillin often sneaks into extracts claiming to be pure.

How to make sure you’re getting the real thing: Real vanilla contains 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, a compound not found in the artificial stuff. How do you know if the vanilla at the store is natural or artificial? If you don’t have your science kit handy, just glance at the ingredient list.  If “vanillin” is listed, it is likely synthetic. Added sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? Stay away.

Know your ingredients.

 

Sources:

Real Food, Fake Food by Larry Olmstead

Vanilla Enchantment by Stephen Block

 

  Article compiled by Jeanine Butler