The Rise and Evolution of Vanilla

Although natural vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world, it is still the most popular flavor for dairy products, baked goods, coffees, and cosmetics. Analysts estimate that vanilla is used in about 18,000 different products worldwide, making it imperative for the global economy. So, how did the humble vanilla bean become so popular?
The History of Vanilla Extract
Vanilla extract comes from the seed pods of tropical orchids native to Central America. Ancient Maya and Aztec people used vanilla as a flavoring, and Spanish explorers brought the plant back to Europe in the 16th century. However, Europeans could not cultivate it until 1841, when an enslaved boy named Edmond Albius discovered how to hand-pollinate the flowers. Most growers still use this method today, making natural vanilla so expensive.
To make vanilla extract, one must dry and cure the beans and soak them in water and alcohol to extract the flavor. Many compounds give vanilla extract its complex flavor, but the most dominant one is vanillin.
Scientists Start Synthesizing Vanillin
People have been looking for cheaper sources of vanilla flavoring since the 1800s when scientists started extracting vanillin from clove oil, spruce trees, and other natural sources. Today, about 85% of vanillin is synthesized from a petrochemical called guaiacol, and less than 1% of the world’s vanilla flavoring comes from actual vanilla beans.
Using guaiacol to synthesize vanillin makes the flavor cheaper and more accessible, helping us keep up with the growing demand for vanilla-flavored products.
Vanilla Extract vs Vanilla Essence
What’s the difference between vanilla extract and vanilla essence? They taste, smell, and look similar. However, they differ in what they contain and how they are made.
Vanilla extract comes from vanilla beans. To make it, manufacturers soak the dried vanilla beans in an alcohol solution to draw out their flavor. The resulting extract contains a mixture of different flavor compounds and tiny fragments of vanilla seed. It is thicker and darker than vanilla essence and will have a different flavor depending on the type of vanilla beans used to create it.
Vanilla essence, on the other hand, has a classic flavor across the board. This consistency is due to how it’s made – vanilla essence contains lab-synthesized vanillin without any unexpected plant compounds contributing to its flavor.
Going Back To Natural Vanilla
The demand for natural ingredients has skyrocketed in recent years. This shifting consumer culture means more people are choosing pure vanilla extract over vanilla essence. However, the two ingredients get their characteristic flavor from the same compound – vanillin. Even though synthetic vanillin is chemically identical to natural vanillin, the FDA’s definition of natural flavors means manufacturers cannot label it as such.
Seeing the words “artificial vanilla flavoring” or “imitation vanilla” on a label may deter some consumers, which is why many large confectionary brands, including Nestle and Hershey’s, have announced a mass switch to natural vanilla.
Is Natural Vanilla Better Than Synthetic Vanilla?
Many flavor companies have conducted taste tests between natural vanilla and its synthetic alternative – and professional panelists have not been able to tell the difference. However, this is only true for cookies and cakes – vanilla loses many flavor notes when heated, so consumers may be able to taste the difference in ice creams and cold beverages.
Whether you choose artificial vanilla flavoring or pure vanilla extract, the ancient spice will add rich aromas and flavors to almost any sweet dish. Advanced Biotech is a leading supplier of natural Bourbon, Ugandan, and Tahitian vanilla extracts. Please contact us for more information.