By Maryann Readal
Vanilla, Vanilla planifolia, is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for December. It is the perfect month to feature vanilla, since its flavor will be a fragrant ingredient in many of the desserts that are served during the holidays. But where to begin a discussion of this historic spice, which is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron?
Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid flower. It is a long, dark brown seed pod, which contains thousands of tiny black seeds. Those tiny black seeds are the specks you see in good vanilla ice cream. Vanilla extract is extracted from those seed pods. The vanilla orchid grows in the tropical climates of places like Mexico, Réunion, Tahiti, and Madagascar. Today, 80% of vanilla comes from the island nations of Madagascar and nearby Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Vanilla grown in Madagascar is the most desirable and is often called “Bourbon Vanilla” (Oon, 2020). However, the vanilla vine, which grows to about 300 feet, was first grown in Mexico. At first, Mexico was the only place where vanilla grew, because it needed the Melepona bee to pollinate the flower in order to produce the seed pod. Hernán Cortéz is credited with discovering vanilla during his exploration of Central America in the 16th century, where the Aztecs combined vanilla with cocoa to create their famous drink, xocolatl. The plant was eventually brought to Europe and other tropical climates, but the plants could never produce the vanilla bean, because the Melepona bee pollinator was not present to pollinate the flowers. That is, until one day in 1841, a young boy on the Réunion island in the Indian Ocean discovered how to manually pollinate the vanilla orchid. Soon, growing pod-producing vanilla vines was possible in other tropical countries.
But the process of producing the vanilla was—and still is—a laborious one. It takes three years for a vanilla plant to bloom. Each vanilla flower opens for only one day, and hand-pollination has to be done during a very short window of time. (Watch this video to see how vanilla flowers are pollinated.) Once pollinated, it takes five to nine months for the pods to ripen. When ripe, but before the pods split open, the vanilla pods are picked by hand and then subjected to a multi-step curing process that takes another six months to a year to complete. It is only after this curing process that the vanilla bean develops its distinct vanilla fragrance and flavor. The cured beans are then shipped to an extraction facility, where the beans are ground and soaked in alcohol and water, infusing the vanilla flavor into the liquid that becomes vanilla extract. This long process is the reason for the expense of real vanilla extract.
In 2022, the price of Madagascar vanilla was between $178 and $206 per pound (Salina Wamucii, 2022) after being only $20 per pound five years before. After two devastating cyclones, which destroyed much of the vanilla crop growing in Madagascar in 2017, prices have soared. The expensive and scarce vanilla has forced farmers to imprint a code on each of their growing vanilla beans in order to deter thieves. Companies that import large quantities of vanilla have banded together to help farmers deal with the environmental problems that are affecting their vanilla vines. They decided that helping the farmers is easier than changing formulations based on a new vanilla product and changing the labels needed for a new product.
The demand for vanilla flavoring far exceeds the supply. Vanilla contains between 250-500 different flavor and fragrance components. The most prominent is vanillin, which scientists learned how to create in the laboratory in the late 19th century. Vanillin can be made from petrochemicals, from wood pulp, and from eugenol, which is a component of clove oil. This synthetic or imitation vanilla is much cheaper than the real vanilla extract made from the vanilla beans. It is most likely the one used in vanilla-flavored food products that we are familiar with. “The vast bulk, 99 percent of vanilla-flavored products on the market, from vanilla flavored vodka to vanilla wafers and vanilla pudding, don’t actually contain vanilla” (Rupp, 2014). For consumers, who are increasingly demanding natural products, vanilla made from petrochemicals or wood chips is a difficult choice to make.
So, which vanilla product should you use this holiday season—the cheaper imitation vanilla or the real, but expensive, vanilla extract? Some say that if you are baking something that requires a temperature over 300 degrees, you can just as well substitute the imitation for the real thing. But if you are making puddings, custards, or vanilla ice cream, you should use the real thing—vanilla extract.
For recipes and to find out more about vanilla, go to The Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month webpage.
Photo Credits: 1) Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0); 2) Vanilla beans (Creative Commons); 3) Hand pollinating vanilla flowers (Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 us); 4) Woman hand sorting vanilla beans (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0); 5) Vanilla ice cream (Life Made Simple); 6) Madagascar “Bourbon” vanilla extract (Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0).
Baker, Aryn. 2018. Vanilla is nearly as expensive as silver. Accessed 11/2/22. https://time.com/5308143/vanilla-price-climate-change-madagascar/
Filippone, Peggy Trowbridge. 2022. What are vanilla beans? Accessed 11/13/22. https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-vanilla-beans-1809274
Laws, Bill. 2018. Fifty plants that changed the course of history. United Kingdom: David & Charles.
My Green Pets. n.d. How to pollinate the vanilla orchid, step by step. Accessed 11/15/22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1RdoTcDD2EU
Oon, Samantha. Vanilla beans: the cost of production. Accessed 11/5/22. https://www.foodunfolded.com/article/vanilla-beans-the-cost-of-production
Rupp, Rebecca. 2014. The history of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/plain-vanilla
Selina Wamucii. 2022. Madagascar vanilla prices. Accessed 11/2/22. https://www.selinawamucii.com/insights/prices/madagascar/vanilla/#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20the%20approximate%20price,is%20MGA%201517195.19%20per%20kg.
Sethi, Simran. 2017. The bittersweet story of vanilla. Accessed 11/3/22. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/bittersweet-story-vanilla-180962757/
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. Maryann is also a certified Native Landscape Specialist. She lectures on herbs and plants and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.