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.
The Long History of Vanilla
Vanilla has a long history, punctuated by new conquests.
The Totonacs of Mexico were the first civilization to domesticate the vanilla plant and include its aromatic pods in their religious rites and for medical and cosmetic purposes. When the Aztecs, another Mesoamerican population, conquered the Totonacs in the 15th century, they forced them to provide regular tributes, among which were the vanilla pods. The vanilla flavoring was then adopted by the Aztec culture and included it in a noble drink called xocolatl, prepared from a base of ground cocoa beans, ground corn, honey, vanilla, and spices.
In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistadors guided by Hernán Cortés were the first Europeans to taste xocolatl and bring both vanilla and chocolate from the New World to the Old Continent. The Spanish also coined a term for the vanilla pod, referring to its shape as vainilla, a diminutive form from Latin vaina—which means ‘sheath’.
Vanilla was initially exclusivity of the European aristocracy till the 19th century. Only after the disruptive effects of the Industrial Revolution manifested, did vanilla become first an alluring fragrance for the middle classes and then a widespread food flavoring in later times. However, there was a problem: vanilla was no longer made as the glamorous natural extract but a cheap knockoff known as vanillin.
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:
Top 10 producing countries of vanilla. (Source: Tridge)
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, the 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 are 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 ‘nature-identical’ alternatives
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 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 on the effects of real vanilla added to chocolate, some features can be deduced by reading about a study on 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 the above-mentioned 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.
• It justifies the slow chocolate aging process after chocolate conching often adopted by fine chocolate makers, turning out a more complex aromatic profile than that obtained from the faster processes of run-of-the-mill chocolate corrected with fake vanilla to cover quality flaws.
Awaiting the experience of fine chocolate makers telling more about their experiences in using real vanilla in chocolate, a couple of things are sure by now.
Whether with or without vanilla, fine chocolate lovers ought to pay more attention to what they specifically like of a chocolate brand. Moreover, choosing a chocolate brand using natural vanilla means sustaining the preservation of a species appreciated for millennials and intermingled with the origins of chocolate.
To read more about vanilla and its role in fine chocolate, get Issue One of Cacao Magazine, where you will find my article, “Why Fine Chocolate Is Loyal To Real Vanilla”:
What do you know about vanilla and its plausible role in chocolate?