imitation vanilla is actually extracted from oak. that is why it is inexpensive at the grocery store. it is also why you hear people talk about an oak aged wine having vanilla aromas (there are whites that are oak aged), and why when describing bourbon, scotch, or whiskey people talk about vanilla aromas. bourbon is always aged in charred new oak barrels and scotch is also aged in charred oak barrels. in blind taste tests tasters have always had a really hard time telling imitation vanilla from vanilla extract.
sidebar- did you know that 1 in every 10 people are what is called a "super tasters". they have a heightened ability to taste things that most people take for granted. many sommeliers, chefs, and food critics are drawn to their crafts as their ability to taste is far beyond others.
it is said that vanilla can stimulate your bodies adrenaline making it semi addictive to some people
vanilla extract has 35% alcohol by volume, so if that bothers you stay away.
vanilla powder is becoming available more and more. white powder that is pure vanilla. i would assume it is expensive.
i buy vanilla paste at work, it has the coolness of whole bean but none of the hassles. i have never seen it in a grocery store, but it must exist.
if you are working with whole pod and have scraped the beans out you can dry the pod in a paper towel and then put it in some white sugar. the pod will scent the sugar, and when added to a custard, cookie, or baked good will add another depth of vanilla flavor.
one vanilla pod will flavor up to 8 cups of liquid in a brulee, or ice cream mix.
at home i have some Madagascar beans, and some Mexican vanilla extract and i use both. it is also worth mentioning that you are seeing some chefs using vanilla in savory sauces, usually over seafood. my favorite smell in the kitchen is hot cream and vanilla whisking into egg yolks. its sublime nuances will fill your home, and your belly.