Vanilla – An Expensive Spice

By Maryann Readal

Vanilla planifolia flowerVanilla, 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 vanilla beansfrom 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.

Vanilla flower hand pollinationBut 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.

Woman sorting vanilla pods in MadagascarIn 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.

Madagascar "Bourbon" Vanilla ExtractThe 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.

Vanilla ice creamSo, 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).

References

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.

12 thoughts on “Vanilla – An Expensive Spice

  1. Vanilla is fragrantly lovely; I must insist upon viewing the yellow pod/flower that I could not help but think of a Star Trek episode where Mr. Spock was made dizzied /spelled or such when he leaned in to smell this yellow flower/pod and it blew on him some dust which made him more human and in love even; it was likened to those magic dust…poof and he was all smiles and tree climbing for this woman in this one episodic series:
    The USS Enterprise is ordered to a Federation colony on Omicron Ceti III. Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock, Chief Medical Officer Leonard McCoy, and others beam down to the colony, and discover the colonists all alive and well, a surprise since the planet is bathed in Berthold rays, a form of radiation which humans cannot survive for longer than a week. Their leader, Elias Sandoval, welcomes them and explains they only lost communications due to equipment failure. Also present is Leila Kalomi, a botanist Spock met on Earth six years before; she loved him, but he was unable to return her love. The landing party notices a lack of animal life, including livestock brought to the colony. During medical exams, McCoy finds no sign of disease or injury in any of them: even Sandoval, who has had an appendectomy, now has a healthy appendix. Kirk nonetheless insists that the colonists be evacuated due to the Berthold rays, over Sandoval’s objections. if of interest view this here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Side_of_Paradise_(Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series) or this episode on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SfdRVtIyFQc ; thank you for sharing; and sorry to take up so much of your space.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. One question and an observation…is vanilla called a spice because the seeds are what is used? Or, is it for another reason? An observation…some imitation vanillas are made with propelyne glycol, which according to my reading is a dangerous thing to ingest…it’s used mainly in e-vape cigarettes I believe. Would like to know, if you know! ^_^ Thanks for another great article…

    Like

    • Hi, Deborah,
      First of all, herbs are considered to be the leaves and soft stems of the plant. Spices are considered to be the seed, fruit, root, or bark of the plant. So while cilantro iteself is an herb, its seed, coriander, is a spice.

      I hear your concern about the propylene glycol in the vanilla you bought. Actually propylene glycol is regarded as “generally safe” according to the US Food and Drug Administration for use in foods. It is used in liquid sweeteners, ice cream, whipped dairy products, etc. It is used in the pharmaceutical industry for drug preparations. It is also used in cosmetics. Many tests have been done on the safety of ingesting propylene glycol, and it has been given the “safe” status both in the U.S. and in Europe.

      However, there have not been conclusive studies on the safety of inhaling propylene glycol. Allergic reactions and other problems have been reported.
      If you are interested, here is a government report that talks about this:
      Toxicology of E-Cigarette Constituents
      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507184/

      Thank you for reading the blog and thank you for sounding your concern.

      Like

  3. Liked -“But where to begin a discussion of this historic spice, which is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron?” I have experienced a large price increase in vanilla and now I know why. Thanks for creating great educational posts!!!!

    Like

  4. Pingback: Vanila - Rempah Mahal - Blog The Herb Society of America

  5. Pingback: Vanilla – An Expensive Spice – The Herb Society of America Blog -

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