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Anything But Plain; Vanilla

By Nick Saxby  ·  16th May 2021  ·  The History of Chocolate, The Science of Chocolate, The World of Chocolate

If ever an adjective was unfairly associated with a spice it’s ‘PLAIN’ with vanilla (as in ”plain vanilla”). Vanilla’s history is anything but plain, what it contributes to many foods, again, is anything but plain (think milk chocolate, ice cream, cakes, and even curries) and what comprises ‘natural’ versus ‘artificial’ vanilla flavour is not at all “plain and simple”.

So for the next couple of weeks on the blog, we’re doing a deep dive into vanilla. We will try to answer if it is a good or bad sign when you see the likes of vanilla, vanilla extract, natural vanilla flavouring, artificial vanillin, etc. on the ingredients list of your chocolate bar. Spoiler alert; it’s complex. There are strong cases to be made for ‘artificial vanillin’ and vanilla in milk (or white) chocolate, but eyebrows can be raised with dark chocolate. And some synthetic vanillins may be better environmentally and flavour-wise than natural vanilla flavouring.

And if you want to know the links between pre-Aztec princesses, piracy, rare bees, drug smuggling, synthetic biology, coal, plastics, and orchids, look no further than vanilla! Or just skip below for some amazing craft chocolate bars spiced with vanilla (and vanillin).

The Origins of Vanilla

Vanilla is the fruit of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, which grows on vines hundreds of feet tall and has relied for most of its history on special bees (or occasionally hummingbirds) to cross-pollinate its vanilla pods. And it’s arguably unique among the 25,000 other varieties of orchid in not just being beautiful to look at (see picture above) but agriculturally useful as an ingredient and flavouring agent.

Its first recorded use was with the Aztecs, who in the 15th century conquered the neighbouring kingdom of Totonicapan and demanded tribute in the form of vanilla pods. The Aztecs combined this vanilla with cocoa to make a drink they called ‘chocolatl’ or ‘chicolatl’ (there are lots of scholarly debates on the origin of this term; for more, see previous posts in the blog).

It may well be that vanilla was appreciated before the Aztecs used it for their drinking chocolate as, for example, an incense or perfume. However, unlike cocoa (which leaves traces of theobromine), there are no chemical fingerprints that enable us to work out how vanilla may have been used before then.

Nonetheless, there are some wonderful legends for the origin of vanilla, especially among the Totonac (Jaguar) people of Mexico. They have a ‘Juliet’ and ‘Romeo’ story of a Princess and Prince falling in love against the wishes of their family and high priests, being sacrificed as punishment, then being turned into the vanilla vine by the gods.

The Post-Columbus History of Vanilla

Vanilla really took off when it was introduced to Europe. Initially it was consumed Spanish (or rather “Aztec”) style in drinking chocolate, and proved hugely popular.

Vanilla’s popularity was then turbo charged by Hugh Morgan, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s apothecaries (think pharmacist with a few other side interests), who started to mix vanilla with all sorts of other stuff; in particular tobacco, pastries, perfumes and (of course) alcohol. On the other side of the pond Thomas Jefferson added it to ice cream in the US (one of his recipes is stored in the Library of Congress). Demand boomed.

Supply struggled to keep up. Even though the vanilla orchid could be grown outside Latin America, it pollinated in only a few places outside of Mexico (so no vanilla pods emerged). Eventually in 1838 Charles Morren, a horticulturist, identified the problem: You need either special bees (Melipona or Euglossine), or hummingbirds to cross-pollinate (and therefore grow) vanilla pods.

It then took another five years, and the smarts of a 12-year-old enslaved boy called Edmond Albius living on Reunion (a tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean), to work out a means of ‘hand pollinating’ vanilla pods. Even though this process is painstakingly slow and difficult, it rapidly became (and remains) the predominant way to grow vanilla. And since then, Reunion and Madagascar have become leading exporters of grown vanilla.

In parallel, scientists worked on ways to artificially create the flavour of vanilla. Vanilla pods have hundreds of flavour compounds (estimates range from 250 to 500). But there is one critical flavour note called vanillin (or 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, as it’s known to its friends!), which creates most of the magic vanilla flavour. And in 1858 a French pharmacist, Nicolas-Theodore Gobley, synthesised these vanillin crystals, kicking off an ongoing quest to discover new ways to grow, produce, and create this magic flavour.

First past the post were Ferdinand Tiemann and Willhelm Haarman in the 1860s, who worked out how to synthesize vanillin from pine tree sap (bizarrely, they failed to make any money from their discovery). But since then many more, and very lucrative, approaches to creating vanillin have been developed, including:

  • From lignin; a natural polymer found in wood, and a by-product of making paper (only used for perfume as the process is judged toxic to eat),
  • From clove oil and guaiacol (a cheaper alternative to pine tree sap that was created initially from wood and coal pyrolysis),
  • From petrochemicals (which can also be used to create guaiacol),
  • From castoreum secreted from the anal glands of beavers (note: this is not a widely used source of vanillin!),
  • From yeast cells where common sugar feedstocks are fermented via gene editing techniques.

Today, over 99% of ‘vanilla’ products are made with vanillin created via one of these approaches. Only 1% of vanilla products are flavoured from vanilla pods grown on the vanilla orchid.

‘Artificial’ Versus ‘Natural’ Vanilla

Labelling here becomes distinctly tricky. 

The 1% of products (like Menakao, Fruition, Solstice, and other milk chocolates below) that are made with, for example, Madagascan Vanilla, are easy to identify.

However ‘artificial’ versus ‘natural’ versus ‘synthetic’ vanilla FLAVOURINGS are more tricky. The US FDA broadly defines “natural flavors” as those derived from “a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material … whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional”.

So vanilla flavouring (vanillin) made from lignin or clove oil is “natural” but vanillin made from guaiacol, which is safer to eat than lignin, is “artificial”. And it’s not at all clear where new bio techniques such as gene edited yeasts come in (technically they may well be GMOs too).

Even natural vanilla has problems. Much of the world’s natural vanilla comes from Madagascar. However, vanilla’s scarcity and extreme light weight has led to multiple stories of dried vanilla being used by criminal gangs and drug smugglers to launder money. And this, in turn, has encouraged theft and violence towards the vanilla farmers as prices of vanilla have skyrocketed from $20 to over $500 per kilo. The situation has become so bad that ‘real’ vanilla is being compared to the likes of blood diamonds. So, just as with craft chocolate, you need to be conscious of who you are buying real vanilla from, and the situation for the farmers.

Next Week

Next week we will explore how chocolate makers use (and sometimes abuse) “real vanilla”, “natural vanilla flavourings”, “artificial vanillin” and more. In particular we will explore how vanilla works differently in different cultures; for example, British and Danish people find that adding vanilla to chocolate makes it seem “sweeter” and “creamier” (even though vanilla isn’t sweet), but that this generally isn’t the experience of people living in East Asia.

And in the interim, why not explore some great milk and white chocolate bars (including one with matcha) crafted with real vanilla?

Wishing you all a great weekend!

Spencer