From CI: "Most participants in that tasting, including pastry [COLOR=orange ! important][COLOR=orange ! important]chefs[/color][/color] and baking experts, couldn't tell the difference between imitation vanilla and the real thing: pure vanilla extract. Even though we have repeated that tasting and gotten the same results, we've never quite overcome our disbelief.... Despite the widespread hue and cry in the food world about the inferiority of imitation vanilla-experts agree that it lacks the flavor nuances and subtleties of pure vanilla extract-our tasters found it to be perfectly acceptable in cake and [COLOR=orange ! important][COLOR=orange ! important]custard[/color][/color]. The imitation vanillas earned high enough scores to be recommended alongside all of the pure vanillas. In fact, every extract we tasted scored its way into the "recommended" category of the chart on page 27."
Yeah, I can't really tell the difference either. But then again, my palette has about as much subtlety as sledgehammer to the balls... which is not very subtle at all.
I never use imitation though. I'm a snob and a purist. My rationalization is that even if I can't tell the difference, someone wwho eats my food might.
Here's a trick for making your own vanilla extract (or perhaps the right word is infusion). Just get yourself a cup of top quality Vodka like Grey Goose or Belvedere or whatever, and then chop up a couple of vanilla pods and bottle them up in the vodka for about a month, shaking the botle up every once in a while. At the end, strain through cheesecloth and you've got your vanilla infusion.
Way cheaper than even the cheapest grocery store alternatives although not nearly as cheap as artificial, unless you make it in bulk. (I would think if you start making litres and litres of the stuff, you'd probably eventually out-cheap even the cheapest artificial.)