Vanillin is a phenolic aldehyde, an organic compound with the molecular formula C8H8O3. Its functional groups include aldehyde, ether, and phenol. It is the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean. Synthetic vanillin, instead of natural vanilla extract, is sometimes used as a flavoring agent in foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals.
Vanillin as well as ethylvanillin is used by the food industry. The ethyl 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 a solution of pure vanillin, usually of synthetic origin. Because of the scarcity and expense of natural vanilla extract, there has long been interest in the synthetic preparation of its predominant component. The first commercial synthesis of vanillin began with the more readily available natural compound eugenol. Today, artificial vanillin is made either from guaiacol or from lignin, a constituent of wood, which is a byproduct of the pulp industry.
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 in the lignin-derived product, an impurity not found in vanillin synthesized from guaiacol.