What Is Birthday Cake Flavor, Really? Vanilla? Sprinkles? Candles?

You know you like it, but do you know what it is? What is birthday cake flavor when there are so many kinds of birthday cakes in the world? Light the candles and let’s dig in. 

Ah, birthday parties: Gathering a bunch of friends or random coworkers together, wearing those weird conical paper hats, singing “Happy Birthday to You” free of concern ever since the song reverted to the public domain in 2016. And of course, there is no more iconic part of a birthday than the cake. This we know. But, while you can’t shrink down the hats or the song into a liquified essence, flavor scientists have somehow found a way to do just that with birthday cake. But what is birthday cake flavor? What is birthday cake flavor made of? Well, blow out the candles and make a wish—if that wish is for me to explain more about birthday cake flavor, then you’re in luck (all other wishes are probably not going to be granted).

What flavor is “birthday cake?” While a real birthday cake can, of course, be chocolate, red velvet, carrot, or something even more esoteric, birthday cake flavor is specifically vanilla-oriented. The reason for this is likely somewhat connected to the Funfetti craze—the popularity of the multi-colored, slightly artificial-tasting sprinkles in a white cake helped solidify this taste as the epitome of all things birthday.

So, yes, birthday cake flavoring is, essentially, vanilla, but as anyone who’s had vanilla and birthday cake frozen yogurt in the same cup knows, they’re certainly not identical. So what is it? According to a Salon interview with flavor scientist Tom Gibson, “What most people will initially have in mind is an indulgent, rich vanilla but with a twist. Ultimately, this ‘twist’ is what will make a particular product’s version of birthday cake stand out against what already exists on the market.” He continues, “As flavorists, it’s our job to find the essence of the experience of eating a birthday cake—something that is universally familiar, yet simultaneously individualized for us all—and capture it as a single, multi-faceted flavor. But there is no exact version of a birthday cake flavor.”

To get more specific than that, we’d have to get into the nitty gritty of flavor science and use chemical terms with greek letters and numbers, which, while fascinating, is probably more intensive than we have space or time for at the moment. But, as Gibson alludes to, there is no one flavor profile that makes birthday cake what it is. So, though the vanilla taste and a slight sense of artificiality will likely be consistent, there’s still a lot of wiggle room for individual brands to play with. 

Despite this variety, birthday cake flavor has become extremely popular in the last decade or so. Some of this credit can probably go to the folks at Nabisco, who unveiled Birthday Cake Oreos in 2012 for their 100th anniversary in one of the most high profile usages of this flavor up to this point. Today, if you’re hankering for vanilla with a twist, you’re in luck because it is available everywhere, from cookies and snack mix to popcorn to frozen yogurts and ice creams to vodka to vape pens. There’s also the very subtle distinction between “Birthday Cake” and “Cake Batter” flavor. (I’ll confess that I think these are the same, but perhaps someone more schooled in the ways of flavor science can enlighten me.) 

So, enjoy your birthday cake or at least your favorite snack in birthday cake flavor. You’re another year older and another year wiser. 

About the Author

Matt Crowley

Matt Crowley is a comedy writer living in Los Angeles. He likes maple-flavored snacks, loves every kind of cheese, and is slowly learning to accept mushrooms.

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  • I think butter flavoring is often at least part of the twist on vanilla in birthday-cake-flavored items.