Vanilla. In our gastronomic memory, the first food we associate with this name is likely that vanilla-flavored ice cream, pudding, or yogurt elating our afternoon breaks. But there is a problem: our sensory memories of vanilla have been manipulated since childhood. Indeed, there is more than 95% probability that what we remember as 'vanilla' is not actually vanilla, but only an incomplete association with it. The good news is that we can easily make up for this inconvenience, by understanding where the diffusion of this as much precious as little-known spice originates, from which living species it derives, and the different forms of vanilla used in foods.
History of Vanilla
The history of vanilla begins with its discovery in Mesoamerica. The Totonac tribe of Mexico was the first culture to use and domesticate vanilla to round the flavor of their favorite drink, ‘chocolatl’, made from powdered cocoa beans, ground corn, and vanilla pods. The Aztecs from South America acquired vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs in the 14th century; the Spanish, in turn, got it when they conquered the Aztecs in the 15th century.
It was the Spanish conquest of the Aztec culture that brought vanilla to Europe. Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés is credited for introducing both vanilla and chocolate to Europe in the 1520s. The original term vainilla, Spanish for vanilla, is from the diminutive of Latin vaina—which means sheath—to describe the shape of the pods from which vanilla comes from.
After the discovery of its properties, vanilla took the European nobility by storm and became a spice fit only for the aristocracy. When vanilla became so tempting and alluring for the middle classes in later centuries, it also became one of the first synthetic flavors of the Industrial Revolution, which led to its widespread dissemination across the world.
But where exactly does the natural flavor of vanilla derive, the same that the Spaniards brought from Central America to Europe?
What real Vanilla flavor is and where it comes from
Among the variety of natural flavors in use today, vanilla occupies a prominent marketplace and has been in use for the preparation of ice creams, chocolates, cakes, drinks, pharmaceuticals, and perfumery.
Natural vanilla is a complex mixture of flavor components extracted from the cured pods of different species of plant genus Vanilla, belonging to the family Orchidaceae. Among Vanilla planifolia (also known as Vanilla fragrans), Vanilla tahitensis, and Vanilla pompona, only the first is valued most because of its pod quality and yield, which considers length, flesh, and skin of the pod. The delicate mix of fruity, spicy, and floral fragrances of its cured vanilla pods makes V. planifolia a widely recognized flavoring agent.
The sweetest varieties of vanilla come from Mexico, where V. planifolia originated. Initially exported by French colonialists to Madagascar’s neighboring island of Réunion in the early 1920s, the largest production of vanilla has been overtaken by Madagascar since the 1960s. Even if in minor part, vanilla cultivation spread in Indian Ocean islands and Asia:
Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron since growing the vanilla pods is ridiculously labor-intensive, requiring workers to manually pollinate the orchid flowers prior to fruiting as well as collect mature vanilla pods every day, as each pod ripens at its own pace. Moreover, each flower remains open for just less than 24 hours, after which, if not pollinated, it wilts, dies, and drops to the ground.
When the first colonialists started cultivating vanilla around the world, they realized how the vanilla vines grew and the flowers bloomed, but no fruit grew from them. They forgot to bring the Melipona bee, which is the only bee on earth capable of pollinating a vanilla orchid for the unique shape of its body fitting the anatomy of a vanilla flower.
In 1837, Belgian botanist Charles Morren pioneered a method of artificially pollinating the vanilla flower, which unfortunately proved financially unworkable. In 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave who lived on the French island of Bourbon (the actual Réunion), succeeded in a simple but effective hand-pollinating method that allowed the global cultivation of the vanilla plant.
Pollination by hand is the only method to set the vanilla fruit from which the flavoring is derived. As climate changes have negatively impacted on successful bee pollination events, vanilla orchids need manual pollination even in their native Mexico.
Vanilla pods possess a pure, delicate spicy flavor that cannot be duplicated exactly by synthetic products. For this reason, and because of limited supply, natural vanilla is able to command a premium price, leading to numerous efforts of its blending and adulteration. Also, the flavor quality of vanilla extracts varies considerably, depending upon the plant origin, curing technique, storage conditions, extraction methods, and age of the vanilla extract itself.
Besides being a highly valued flavoring agent, vanilla has proven to be a potential food preservative and health food agent. The active constituents of vanilla are responsible for its various biological and therapeutic activities: the authentic flavor profile of vanilla is so complex and functional to contain more than 200 identified components, of which only 26 occur in concentrations greater than 1 mg/kg.
Among the various volatile compounds reported, vanillin is the single most characteristic component of flavor in vanilla. The aroma and flavor of vanilla extract is typically attributed to the presence of vanillin, which occurs in a concentration of 1.0-2.0% w/w in cured vanilla pods. For its natural characteristics, vanillin possesses antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. The presence of vanillin in micro quantities enhances the protection of food against oxidation, thus acting as a food preservative. Vanillin has also been reported to inhibit the auto-oxidation of milk fat. Various non-volatile constituents that impart the characteristic flavor to vanilla include tannins, polyphenols, free amino acids, and resins.
Green vanilla pods possess no flavor, as the characteristic aroma of vanilla develops during the curing process in which enzymatic changes occur. The vanillin precursor occurs in nature as a glycoside, which hydrolyzes to vanillin (the active flavoring component) and sugar.
Natural vanilla extract is prepared mainly by percolating or macerating chopped vanilla pods with ethyl alcohol and water, instead of distillation that destroys the gentle fragrance of aromatic compounds.
Owing to the limited supply and high price of vanilla pods, the creation of imitation vanilla flavors to replace the natural extracts has now reached a very high level. At present, about 97% of vanillin sold in the market comes mainly from the synthetic sources using the pathways from lignin, guaiacol, coniferin, and eugenol.
The surprising aspect about vanillin that made it so popular and easy to imitate as a standalone flavoring component is that it is ubiquitous in different oils, balsams, resins, and woods.
Artificial vanillin is mainly produced from lignin, a by-product of the wood-pulp industry, and as ‘ethyl vanillin’ from guaiacol, a compound present in wood smoke, resulting from the pyrolysis of lignin. The main difference between vanillin and ethyl vanillin is that the latter is two times and a half as potent. Ethyl vanillin is the characterizing flavoring substance that makes foods taste ‘vanilla’. Plus, ethyl vanillin can withstand the high temperatures of baking.
When it comes to artificial vanillin and ethyl vanillin processing, though, concerns grow strongly related to the type of solvents being used by cheap chemical manufacturers, such as toluene from benzene or methanol from the hydrogenation of carbon monoxide, either traces of them do not make them food-grade solvents.
With the objective to overcome dark and obsolete methods in the production of vanillin, the current ingredients market now seems to be heading toward the creation of entirely ‘natural’ alternatives.
Vanilla flavor alternatives: when natural means ‘quasi-real’
Over the last years, the current industry trend for food additives has been to move away from synthetic options to provide a ‘natural-halo’ version of the same ingredients.
Driven by consumer desire of cleaner labels, the demand for all-natural vanilla flavorings has led several large food companies to adopt natural vanilla for their flavored products. Flavorists and food technologists have been called to reformulate products to adjust their concentrations of vanillin in response to the changing market landscape.
Biotechnology companies like Evolva and Ginkgo Bioworks are approaching the natural vanilla flavor challenge from another angle. Using gene-editing methods to introduce biosynthetic genes into the genome of yeast cells, they are producing vanillin from these designer microbes by fermenting cheap and widely available sugar feedstocks. Because the flavor compounds are produced by living microorganisms, and not synthesized using chemical precursors, the vanillin could potentially be labeled as natural, rather than artificial, under current regulations. This ‘synbio’ (synthetic biology) approach may become important in building a sustainable and reliable pipeline of natural vanilla, compared to the volatile supply of natural vanilla derived from mature seedpods. However, consumer fears about genetically modified organisms may push these synbio firms to redirect their efforts.
Specialty chemicals companies like Solvay are tackling the vanilla shortage problem developing another strategy. Solvay, which is the largest producer of vanillin in the world—launched its Rhovanil® natural vanillin (which can be labeled as ‘natural flavor’ in the U.S. and Europe), produced from ferulic acid (a natural organic compound found in rice bran) via a fermentation process using a proprietary non-GMO strain of yeast through a bioconversion route. For its high degree of purity and pleasant tasting properties, this newly-produced vanillin is much more expensive than the average artificial vanillin, yet way cheaper than real vanilla bean extract.
In 2015, Solvay also introduced a suite of vanillin-based products under the Vanifolia® brand combining Rhovanil® vanillin and other natural flavors—like Vanifolia® Bean derived from real vanilla beans—to mimic better the complex notes (smoky, spicy, and floral) associated with natural vanilla bean extract.
Developments on the ‘quasi-real’ vanilla can undoubtedly be successfully placed among specific applications that require a good compromise of costs versus benefits (e.g., to buffer the aftertaste of foods and beverages sweetened with stevia or snack bars fortified with plant-based protein powders.)
But why do fine chocolate makers who add vanilla in their chocolate keep using real vanilla?
Why specialty/fine chocolate makers like to opt for real vanilla
Both natural vanilla extract and artificial vanillin options are added to a whole range of food and beverage products in concentrations depending on the product category, from 0.005% up 0.1%.
As chocolate confectionery and run-of-the-mill chocolate brands remain a massive market for artificial vanillin, high-quality fine chocolate looks for the real thing. The differentiating aspect on why some fine chocolate makers include real vanilla in their chocolate may not be the same for which vanillin is used.
In your average chocolate bar, artificial vanillin is intentionally chosen to mask off bitter and astringent notes in chocolate from low-quality cacao and soften the metallic taste in stevia-sweetened chocolate.
Real vanilla too has the same potential features of fake vanillin, but its costly use in high-quality chocolate is not justified for ‘masking’ or ‘flavoring’ low-quality something.
As there is no highlighting literature available on the effects of real vanilla in chocolate, some features can be deduced by ‘reading between the lines’ of a study about the impact of aging chocolate by To’ak, the chocolate maker specialized in exploring the art and science of aged chocolate:
“It is estimated that 70% of the aroma and flavor of a well-aged spirit, such as whiskey, is derived from the barrel itself. Hence the supreme importance of barrel selection and aging conditions for whiskey, cognac, tequila and pretty much anything else with an age statement on the bottle. Oils and other chemical compounds within the wood play a key role in this process. Lignin most notably imparts vanilla notes, and can also contribute floral and spicy aromas. When whiskey is stored in an oak barrel, it extracts these chemical compounds from the wood and draws them into the whiskey, which imparts flavor and color.
[Likewise barrel-aged spirits], chocolate has an interesting advantage in extracting flavor and aroma from the wood. When aging chocolate in wood barrels, a similar process unfolds.”
Considering these specific aspects on the aging of chocolate—and those already mentioned on the general properties possessed by vanilla—it is possible to hypothesize how the function of (real) vanilla in chocolate may have multiple positive implications:
- It functions as an antioxidant and natural preservative, complementing the properties of cocoa flavanols.
- It helps round and develop further complex aromas in the chocolate, imitating similar effects to those observed in cask-aged chocolate through a process of ‘extraction’ between the fat part in cocoa butter from the chocolate and the alcoholic part of the vanilla extract.
- It justifies a likely use associated with a slow chocolate aging process, which is a typical step adopted by fine chocolate makers turning out a more expensive result than everyday chocolate brands who choose cheaper vanilla options to quickly ‘fix’ any flaw in the product.
Awaiting the experience of fine chocolate makers telling more about why they are opting for real vanilla in their chocolate, a couple of things are sure by now.
Whether with or without vanilla, fine chocolate lovers ought to pay attention more on what they specifically like of a product and maker rather than ill-discriminating quality based on the few words composing the ingredients list.
On the other hand, specialty/fine chocolate makers including vanilla in their chocolate could create more effective storytelling focused on why and how they are using real vanilla.
- A comprehensive review on vanilla flavor: Extraction, isolation and quantification of vanillin and others constituents (Sinha et al., 2008). International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition.
- Navigating the vanilla flavors market (Watson, 2007). Food Navigator USA.
- Guidance on Flavourings (2012.) Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
- Aged Chocolate: How and Why (2018). To’ak Chocolate.
What did you know about vanilla and the plausible role of vanilla in chocolate before today?