The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla!!

Posted by Elixier on Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Vanilla is a member of the Orchid family, the largest and oldest family of flowering plants in the world!! It grows best in the moist, tropical regions of the world, 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the Equator.

From Ice creams to cakes, almost every desert & even many personal care products like perfumes, hand wash, body wash use vanilla as their signature ingredient. It is world’s most popular & versatile aroma compound.

Vanilla is the only flavor with a U.S. FDA standard of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 169).

Single-fold Vanilla extract must contain extractive material from 13.35 oz. of vanilla beans (at 25% moisture) per gallon and at least 35% alcohol by volume. Anything less than 35% must be labeled “Vanilla Flavor.” Optional ingredients include glycerin, corn syrup, sugar and propylene glycol. Concentrated vanilla extract is made by removing some of the solvent – usually by vacuum distillation – until the desired concentration or “fold” is reached.

Although Madagascar dominates world’s vanilla production, Mexico is actually the birthplace of the Vanilla Orchid, also known as Vanilla planifolia Andrews. For centuries, vanilla could only be found throughout Mexico because of an indigenous bee called Melipona, the only insect to pollinate orchid flower that produces fruit. Vanilla was finally introduced to the rest of the world when the pods were brought back to Spain in the late 1700s. Madagascar, Indonesia, China, PNG & Mexico are top 5 producers of Vanilla, worldwide.

**Growing Vanilla is notoriously labor intensive!!** It can take up to three years after the vines are planted before the first flowers appear. Each flower needs to be pollinated by hand. Within three days after pollination, the vanilla bean appears. It grows to its full length within two weeks but must remain on the vine for nine months in order to completely develop their signature aroma. Without natural ripening, a bean cannot become vanilla!!

However, when the beans are harvested, they are still partially green and therefore have neither flavor nor fragrance. They develop these distinctive properties during the curing and drying process.


Things can go terribly wrong, anywhere along the line. The worst outcome is mold, deadly to bean flavor and a financial disaster for farmers, curers, and buyers alike. Thus, curing demands an astute eye and years of experience to know when to move the vanilla beans from one stage to the next. There is nothing like seeing a master curer in action!

The four stages of Vanilla curing include,


In this, the outer vegetative skin of the bean is killed by soaking it in hot water to keep it from growing further. No more than three days after harvest, the beans are plunged into water heated to 150-170°F from 10 seconds to 3 minutes. Timing depends on the size of the beans, whether they have split on the vine, and water temperature.


As soon as the beans are pulled from the water, workers rush to wrap them tightly in wool blankets, storing them inside a dark, airtight container. Speed is essential to preserve heat and steam. These trigger the enzymes that convert cellulose and starches to vanillin and other complex components that give vanilla it’s beautifully subtle aroma.


During this stage Vanilla beans are laid out into the hot sun and then locked up at night or during rainy or cloudy days so they won’t be stolen or ruined by climate. Beans can no longer be wrapped up, as moisture can get trapped causing mold. This usually takes 3 to 4 weeks to make sure each pod has about 30-35% moisture content and doesn’t dry out too much and split.


By now, the beans are exploding with aroma and flavor, and almost ready. They are placed in closed boxes lined with wax paper and kept there for at least a month. This preserves and enhances aroma. Beans are often shipped at this stage before conditioning is complete because this is the bean’s final form of storage.

This incredibly labor-intensive way in which vanilla must be cultivated makes vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world, after Saffron!! It’s value comes from the delicate complexity of over 250 known flavor components coming together in a unique flavor that simply cannot be duplicated!! Sky-high prices of vanilla is the most important reason why commercial users are switching to cheaper alternatives, vanillin & ethyl vanillin!!

Vanillin is the principal aroma compound of the natural vanilla extract!! Cured Vanilla pods contain about 2% of vanillin on dry basis.

About 85% of commercially available vanilla flavor is actually a Vanillin, synthesized artificially from the petrochemical precursor Guaiacol while rest comes from Lignin wastes. Hardly 1% of vanilla flavor that comes from actual vanilla beans is Natural.

In response to the ongoing natural trend in industry, big flavor houses like Solvay, Mane are adopting bio-conversion processes to turn natural ingredients like Ferulic Acid, Eugenol or Corn sugar in Nature Identical Vanillin. But both Ferulic Acid and Eugenol are pricey raw materials.

Also, bio-conversion via yeast and bacteria presents limitations as high concentrations of both Ferulic Acid and Eugenol are toxic to most microbes, as is vanillin. Indeed, all three compounds are made by plants as antimicrobials. Moreover that, yields are generally low because the microbes also produce undesirable Vanillin alcohol and Vanillic acid.

Obtaining a vanillin yield of more than a few grams per liter of fermentation broth requires specialized or mutated strains and often lengthy incubation periods. The biotechnology firm Evolva developed a process to get around high feedstock costs and toxicity problems by feeding glucose to a genetically modified microbe that produces vanillin glucoside. The sugar group makes vanillin much less toxic to the production organism but must be removed to get vanillin. However, it is not yet clear whether vanillin made from Genetically Modified Organisms will be adopted or marketed.

For now, the alternatives’ big drawback is their high price—generally several hundred dollars per kilogram. That’s cheaper than vanilla but a lot more pricey than synthetic vanillin at around $10 per kg.

Food makers that have disavowed petroleum-derived ingredients but aren’t looking for an all-natural label can turn to Norway’s Borregaard, which offers a vanillin that is derived from lignin. It is much less pricey than either natural vanilla or other alternatives.

No matter what material Vanillin is derived from, all forms are chemically identical and therefore taste, smell, and behave identically!!

Ethyl vanillin is another synthetic variant that was eventually discovered to have a stronger flavor than vanillin itself. It differs from vanillin by having an ethoxy group (−O−CH2CH3) instead of a methoxy group (−O−CH3).

Ethyl vanillin is roughly three times as potently flavorful and fragrant as vanillin. Plus, it can withstand the high temperatures during food manufacturing processes. Although, it is expensive than vanillin, using combination of the two compounds can provide a richer, deeper mimic of vanilla flavor without suppressing one another.

You can make your own Vanilla extract at home but it will take time!! If you want to try it at home; all you need is Vanilla beans, Alcohol & an Air tight stoppered bottle!!

Choose the Vanilla bean that best suits your palate!! Choose your choice of alcohol with 40-80% strength for better extraction. Slit open the Vanilla bean vertically & let it infused in alcohol for about 8 weeks in cool and dark place.

Top quality beans are long, fleshy, supple, very dark brown to black in color, somewhat oily in appearance, strongly aromatic and free from scars and blemishes. Low-quality beans are usually hard, dry, thin, brown or reddish-brown in color and possess a poor aroma. The moisture content of top grade beans is as high as 30 to 40%, whereas it may be as little as 10% in the lower grades.

Also, Vanilla from each country has it’s own distinctive flavor profile and characteristics, owing to the different climates, soils, curing methods and vanilla species. For instance, Vanilla from Madagascar has a creamy n sweet flavor while Mexican Vanilla is known for its hint of spice, along with sweet notes. On the other hand Tahitian Vanilla has fruity and flowery attributes.

So, flavor of your vanilla extract is solely depend on which beans you choose. You can store Vanilla extract for longer period. It will only become more intense over time & the high alcohol percentage will prevent it from spoilage.

Meanwhile, you can still continue with your recipes with cheaper Vanilla Substitutes like Maple Syrup, Almond Extract or Flavored Vanilla Milk without comprising flavor!!

Thank you so much for reading!!