Carnival Cruise Line brand ambassador John Heald has offered guests advice and commiseration about reportedly watered-down vanilla purchased in Cozumel, Mexico, but with a bittersweet reminder that the cruise line has no control or authority over local retailers in ports of call. How can travelers be sure they’re getting quality merchandise?

Carnival Cruise Line brand ambassador John Heald fields hundreds of questions, comments, and requests from guests nearly every day. Some requests are simple, some are outrageous, and some spark great controversy among other loyal Carnival cruisers.

Lately, comments about a very popular souvenir – Mexican vanilla – have begun to be more forceful and distressing.

Apparently, some guests have been communicating that the vanilla they have purchased while on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico, has actually been watered down and is of far inferior quality and what travelers come to expect from this sought-after flavoring, typically marketed as “double strength” “pure” “two-fold” “gourmet” or “baker’s vanilla” – sometimes all on the same label.

Vanilla in Mexico (Photo Credit: nobito)

Guests have commented to Heald that shops selling the lesser quality vanilla should be shut down and that the cruise line should do something about the practice. Heald has graciously responded to the upset guests, being clear about the cruise line’s influence and responsibility.

“We do not own the shops in Cozumel, we don’t have any control over what they sell, and we cannot close them down,” Heald said. “Please shop carefully!”

The comments are apparently being associated only with Cozumel – the busiest cruise port in the world – but may also apply to vanilla purchases in other Mexican ports of call.

It is possible, however, that the impacted guests may have inadvertently purchased a different variety of vanilla with a different manufacturing process that may result in various concentrations or flavor profiles.

While unscrupulous practices and actual watering-down of the vanilla could also be at play, but no evidence of tampering or substitutions has been provided.

It is also possible that guests may be misreading labels or misunderstanding how the vanilla is bottled. It is common for the ingredients to include pure vanilla, ethyl alcohol (as a preservative), and water. This does not mean, however, that the vanilla is “watered down” or otherwise of lesser quality.

Photo Credit: PQK / Shutterstock

Cruise visitors should always be conscientious when they shop. Checking labels carefully, as well as noting whether the bottle’s seal is intact, is essential to ensure a safe and authentic purchase. Guests can also check the bottom of a bottle for any sign of tampering, such as unknown holes or punctures that could indicate a contaminated bottle.

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Choosing to shop at port retailers in duty free areas is another way to help ensure one is buying authentic Mexican vanilla from a reputable retailer, rather than venturing outside the port area for an unlabeled and possibly unregulated store. The prices may be cheaper, but the quality may also be suspect.

Mexican vanilla is a popular souvenir for many cruise guests to buy, and often family members, friends, and neighbors may request a few extra bottles when they know someone is going on a cruise.

The “double strength” vanilla, made by using twice as many beans in the manufacturing process, is richly flavorful and can be used at half amounts in North American or European recipes (only half a teaspoon is needed if a teaspoon is called for in the recipe, for example). This makes using Mexican vanilla economically wise for many frequent or professional bakers.

Using the vanilla at full strength also adds a much stronger flavor to cakes, cookies, pies, fudges, and other recipes, but without extra liquid that could unbalance a delicate recipe or cause texture changes.

Mexican vanilla is also available in a clear variety, ensuring the flavoring does not discolor icing or dough so treats are true-to-color. Bottles are available in various sizes, so every traveler can stock up as needed for their own baking and cooking preferences.

Many bakers – even casual home cooks – are loyal to particular, time-tested ingredients. Once switching to Mexican vanilla, however, few will switch back to other varieties. Running low is a great reason to book another cruise to Mexico!

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