Vanilla is a spice extracted from plants of the genus Vanilla and Orchidaceae family. There are about 110 species of the plant, but only three, V. planifolia from Mexico, V. tahitensis from Tahiti, and V. pompona from West Indies, are consumed commercially. V. planifolia (from Mexico) is the most widely available and commonly used vanilla species globally.
Two-thirds of the spice that is consumed globally comes from Madagascar and Indonesia. Other producers include Uganda, Mexico, Tahiti, and Central and South America.
Subscribe to our Newsletter!
Receive selected content straight into your inbox.
A brief history of vanilla
The spice is thought to have originated from Mexico, around the northeast tip of South America, a place known as Tampico. However, its origins can also be traced to Colima, Ecuador, and the Caribbean. It was officially domesticated around 1185 in Veracruz by the Totonac people. They used it as a flavoring in foods and beverages, a good luck charm, and a fragrance in their temples.
Other sources say that the Olmecs, who inhabited areas where vanilla grew in the wild, were the first to discover and use the plant. In 1427, the Aztecs conquered the Totonacs. They started to use vanilla to flavor their food and drinks, such as xocolatl, modern-day hot chocolate. Around the 1520s, Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, conquered the Aztecs and introduced the spice to Europe. It later spread to France, where it was used to flavor ice cream.
Physical appearance and pollination of vanilla plants
The plants are climbers with aerial roots that attach to other trees or trellises. They require 3-4 years to reach maturity, after which they flower annually. The plant produces many flowers during the flowering season, which open at intervals for about two months.
A particular type of small bee then pollinates the flowers. They can also be pollinated artificially using a wooden needle since the flowers open only for a day. After pollination, the plants mature for 8-10 months to produce green bean-like pods called “vanilla beans.”
Harvesting and curing of vanilla beans
Once the green vanilla beans turn yellow from the tips, they are harvested, and the curing process begins. The green or freshly harvested beans have little or no aroma or flavor. Therefore, the beans are exposed to an enzymatic action process to trigger the production of aroma and flavor. Next, they are aired under direct sunlight for about 10 days until they turn dark brown.
They are then air-dried in shelters until they are ready to sort and package. The dried and cured vanilla beans can also be ground into a powder. Alcohol is then used to remove the extract that is used as a flavoring agent in food and beverages.
What is vanillin?
Vanillin is one of the many organic compounds in the plant, which gives it its characteristic aroma and taste. As mentioned, freshly harvested beans do not have any smell or flavor. The curing process triggers vanillin production, the main compound in vanilla.
Vanillin is also available as an artificial flavoring agent. It is produced from lignin, a waste product from wood pulp, eugenol, or guaiacol, chemicals obtained from crude oil. About 99 percent of vanillin flavoring used in food, pharmaceuticals, and perfumes is produced synthetically.
Uses of vanilla
This spice is a flavoring agent in pastries, desserts, beverages, and savory dishes. Some dishes likely to contain the spice include ice cream, smoothies and shakes, coffee, cakes, yogurt, and pasta sauces. People also use it as a sweetener in beverages.
Due to its low calories and carbohydrate content, it is used as a sweetener by people who wish to cut down on sugar or regulate blood glucose. In addition, some research shows that vanilla has a soothing effect on newborns when they inhale it. It also lessens crying and calms them down. It also has a relaxing impact on adults and reduces sleep apnea symptoms when inhaled before bedtime.
Vanilla and synthetic vanillin extracts are used in the cosmetic industry to add fragrance to perfumes, soaps, shower gels, lotions, and deodorants. It is also an additive to lip care products as it provides a soothing sensation on the skin.
The two have also found their way into the pharmaceutical industry. Here, they are used as drug additives to counter the bitter taste of some drugs. Vanilla is also used for its anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties.
The cost of vanilla
The process of pollinating vanilla plants manually, curing, and packaging is tedious and laborious. That’s why it is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron. In 2023, it costs about $394 to $455 per kilogram. Due to its high cost, synthetic vanillin comes in handy, especially for industrial uses. It is produced cheaply and is readily available as an alternative to vanilla.
Vanillin and human health
The FDA approves vanillin as safe for human consumption. In the correct dosage, it should not cause any harmful effects on human health. However, it is essential to note that vanillin is not a substitute for vanilla. It does not contain the same flavor and aroma as vanilla or have the same health benefits.
Vanilla is a spice with a rich history and many uses. It is used to flavor food and beverages, as a sweetener, and in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. It is also known for its calming and soothing effects on newborns and adults. Unfortunately, it is also the second most expensive spice in the world due to the laborious pollinating, curing, and packaging process.
Synthetic vanillin is a cheaper alternative, but it does not have the same flavor and aroma. The FDA approves vanillin as safe for human consumption in the correct dosage.