A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is Mexican vanilla toxic? Plus: What happens if you microwave the popcorn upside down?

December 7, 2001

Dear Cecil:

Vacationing friends are always trying to give me a "gift" bottle of pure Mexican vanilla extract that they've purchased in a Tijuana pharmacy. I've heard that the Mexicans have a toxin in their vanilla that damages the liver. Are my "friends" out to get me?

Could be, but I'm having a tough time imagining the scenario. "Fred, you son of a bitch, you crossed me for the last time! Myrtle, hand me the Mexican vanilla." But you heard right about toxins.

Vanilla fragrans, as genuine vanilla is known, is native to Mexico, and well into the 19th century makers of high-quality Mexican vanilla had a lock on the business. But competitors elsewhere in the world began stealing market share, and in the 1880s the first synthetic vanilla was developed in Germany. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910-'20 fighting devastated the gulf coast, the center of Mexican vanilla cultivation, and production dropped sharply. Faced with a flood of cheap ersatz product and little of the genuine article to sell, Mexican producers began making synthetic vanilla themselves. But Mexico was still known as the home of the world's best vanilla, so the producers didn't admit what they were doing. They disguised the artificial taste by adding coumarin, an extract of the tonka bean, Dipteryx odorata. Coumarin tastes and smells just like vanilla, only more so. One whiff and your rube tourist from Utah is likely to say, "Whoa, that's good!" No, that's bad. Coumarin has been shown to cause liver damage in lab animals. The Food and Drug Administration restricted it starting in 1940 and banned it outright from all foods and food additives sold in the U.S. in 1954. Many other countries have done likewise.

Coumarin has its uses. A derivative called dicumarol is used as an anticoagulant (blood thinner). Under the trade name warfarin it's used to poison rats by causing internal bleeding. The 1983 article in FDA Consumer I'm getting this from says "there has been no indication that coumarin itself produces this blood-thinning effect in humans." I'm not so sure. Another FDA Consumer article about the dangers of herbal tea told of a young woman who drank large amounts of a home-brew tea containing coumarin and suffered abnormal menstrual bleeding. So yes, I'd say toxic. On the plus side, it's very reasonably priced. You can get a quart for only a few bucks.

Most of the vanilla sold in Mexico is synthetic, though it doesn't all have coumarin in it. Telltale signs of the fake stuff: clear, or dark and murky (the real stuff is amber colored and translucent), low alcohol content (genuine vanilla extract contains at least 35% ethyl alcohol), laughably low price. Pure Mexican vanilla is available, but you're better off getting it in this country. Warning: it won't be cheap.

Dear Cecil:

Whenever I pop popcorn in those handy bags in the microwave, the instructions printed thereon make it very plain as to which side is up (and the other side down) while being popped. Why is that, and what would happen if I cannot follow these simple directions (other than the usual chewing out from the wife)?

Cecil replies:

I admire your rebellious spirit, John. I bet you don't put your one piece of toast in the ONE SLICE slot either. According to the nice lady from Jolly Time, a leading maker of microwave popcorn, the bottom of the bag contains a reflector that helps spread the microwave energy, which comes from the top of the oven, uniformly throughout the product. Turn the bag upside down and the popcorn will still pop, but it may take longer, and some of the corn may be dried out or scorched. Still, if you want to walk on the wild side, be my guest.

Questions we're still thinking about

Dear Cecil:

Since light has a particle nature, and since photons have mass, and since our sun has been shining for 15 billion years, why aren't we knee-deep in photons?

Cecil replies:

Foolish creature. Photons don't have mass. Since Vatican II even Catholics don't have mass. Still, we and the entire universe are knee-deep in photons in the form of the background radiation that elevates even the frozen depths of space to 3 degrees Kelvin. You say you're tired of the constant drone of existence and you just want to get away from it all? Sorry, bub. You can't.

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