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Vanillin is an organic compound with the molecular formula C8H8O3. It is a phenolic aldehyde. Its functional groups include aldehyde, hydroxyl, and ether. It is the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean. Synthetic vanillin is now used more often than natural vanilla extract as a flavoring agent in foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals.

Vanillin and ethylvanillin are used by the food industry; ethylvanillin is more expensive, but has a stronger note. It differs from vanillin by having an ethoxy group (−O−CH2CH3) instead of a methoxy group (−O−CH3).

Natural vanilla extract is a mixture of several hundred different compounds in addition to vanillin. Artificial vanilla flavoring is often a solution of pure vanillin, usually of synthetic origin. Because of the scarcity and expense of natural vanilla extract, synthetic preparation of its predominant component has long been of interest. The first commercial synthesis of vanillin began with the more readily available natural compound eugenol (4-allyl-2-methoxyphenol). Today, artificial vanillin is made either from guaiacol or lignin.

Vanillin crystals extracted from vanilla extract
Lignin-based artificial vanilla flavoring is alleged to have a richer flavor profile than oil-based flavoring; the difference is due to the presence of acetovanillone, a minor component in the lignin-derived product that is not found in vanillin synthesized from guaiacol.

The largest use of vanillin is as a flavoring, usually in sweet foods. The ice cream and chocolate industries together comprise 75% of the market for vanillin as a flavoring, with smaller amounts being used in confections and baked goods.[38]

Vanillin is also used in the fragrance industry, in perfumes, and to mask unpleasant odors or tastes in medicines, livestock fodder, and cleaning products.[4] It is also used in the flavor industry, as a very important key note for many different flavors, especially creamy profiles such as cream soda.

Additionally, vanillin can be used as a general-purpose stain for visualizing spots on thin-layer chromatography plates. This stain yields a range of colors for these different components.

Vanillin–HCl staining can be used to visualize the localisation of tannins in cells.

Vanillin has been used as a chemical intermediate in the production of pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and other fine chemicals.[39] In 1970, more than half the world’s vanillin production was used in the synthesis of other chemicals.[9] As of 2016, vanillin uses have expanded to include perfumes, flavoring and aromatic masking in medicines, various consumer and cleaning products, and livestock foods.