Which of these shapes is ‘vanilla’ like?

By Nick Saxby  ·  23rd May 2021  ·  The Science of Chocolate, The World of Chocolate

Here is a quick quiz to start this week’s post: Which spice has the following attributes?

  • The Aztecs (and Spanish) added it to their drinking chocolate,
  • It’s use was widely extended into cakes, alcohol, perfume and more by Thomas Morgan (an apothecary for Queen Elizabeth I) and then ice-cream by Thomas Jefferson,
  • The key technological breakthrough for its cultivation was worked out by a 12 year old slave boy on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean less than 200 years ago,
  • It’s price has risen from US$20 a kilo to over $600 in the space of a decade,
  • It’s key flavour compounds can be synthesized from products as varied as pine trees, coal, wood pulp, petrochemicals, yeasts and even the anal secretions of beavers.

The answer is VANILLA (in case you missed last week’s email; see here for more).

Vanilla is even more remarkable in how it works on different foods and different cultures because of its ‘cross modal’ characteristics. To explain this, two more questions:

If you think of vanilla, which word would you associate it with?

  • Kiki?
  • Bouba?

If you look at vanilla, which of the images below would you associate it with?

  • The spikey one on the left?
  • The rounded one on the right?

Most of us will reply “Bouba” and “rounded one” to these questions. This provides another dimension to the magic of vanilla, showing how our different senses ‘cross-modally’ interact (i.e., why playing French music makes us more likely to buy French wine, why touching something smooth makes food taste smoother, and why most of us would associate the word “bouba” and the rounded image with vanilla).

It also explains why vanilla is an amazing addition to milk and white chocolate, but a potential ‘red light’ warning if on the ingredient list of a dark chocolate.

So how does vanilla actually work?

For most of us (at least those of us in the West), the term “vanilla” conjures up ideas of sweetness, smoothness, creaminess, etc.

However, vanilla doesn’t actually taste sweet. If you’ve any essence of vanilla in your kitchen cupboards, or even better a vanilla pod, try placing a small amount on your tongue: It’s not sweet: It’s actually almost spicy.

Yet if you add this vanilla (or vanillin) to a cake, yogurt, cup of warm milk or a cup of hot chocolate the impact is dramatic. Somehow they become magically sweeter and richer.

Vanilla and vanillin aren’t like the vast majority of flavours. Adding carrots or bananas to bread or muffins makes them ‘carrot-like’ or ‘banana-like’. Similarly, adding strawberry makes things strawberry-like; chocolate makes things chocolatey etc.

Vanilla is different. Adding vanilla changes our perception of ‘mouth feel’ (by adding creaminess), reduces the perception of acidity, and indeed for many of us makes a food or drink seem sweeter. As a flavouring it almost seems to act as a taste like salt or umami in changing, and revealing, different aspects of foods and drinks. Indeed this really is the magic of vanilla.

Quite how vanilla and vanillin do this is still debated by scientists, but one intriguing idea is that vanilla acts ‘cross modally’. In the West, from an early age, we consume sweet products that have been flavoured with vanilla (ice cream, cakes, etc.), and it appears that as a consequence we associate the smell, and flavour, of vanilla with sweetness.

Repeated experiments and blind tastings have shown that when vanilla is added to milk (or water), even though the sweetness level is the same, consumers think that the liquid enhanced with vanilla is sweeter. And a bunch of start-ups are now claiming they can reformulate processed cakes, ice creams, milks so that with the likes of “KillaVanilla” they can reduce the amount of sugar ‘needed’ by 30-40%.

Intriguingly, when these blind tests have been done with people of different nationalities (for example, Denmark and China) the addition of vanilla flavouring brings out very different reactions (see other posts in our blog for more articles on this). For Westerners, and people from countries where vanilla is commonly eaten from a young age in sweet products, we associate vanilla with sweetness, creaminess, etc. For many Asians, vanilla is cross-modally often not sweet but savoury, even added to curries. Indeed Fossa (a Singaporean chocolate maker) add vanillin to their Salted Egg Cereal Blond Chocolate bar which is inspired by their favourite spicy (not sweet) breakfast bowl of tze-char (see here and below).

Getting back to chocolate:

It’s really not surprising that many craft chocolate makers use vanilla to add some additional perceptions of sweetness and creamy mouthfeel to their flavoured milk and white chocolate bars. Vanilla will enhance the milk’s creaminess and accentuate other inclusions and additives. See below for examples from the likes of Menakao, Chocolat Madagascar, Hogarth, Fruition, Solstice and Zotter.

However with dark chocolate it becomes far more controversial. Indeed, the addition of vanilla (or more likely some combination of ‘natural’ or ‘artificial’ “vanilla flavouring”) is a fairly good tell that the dark chocolate is ‘mass produced’, rather than craft.

Mass produced chocolate is all about consistency and price, and vanilla flavouring will create consistent flavour and mouthfeel. Moreover it can smooth over any issues with bean or roast quality (so it’s well suited to mass chocolates approach of nib roasting, which is more efficient but reduces many flavours). And so many (maybe most) ‘luxury’ supermarket dark chocolate bars will list on their ingredients “natural vanilla flavouring”.

Craft chocolate makers, in their dark bars, want to create a “sensory wave” where, as you savour the bar, more and more different aromas and flavours will emerge. And they delight in exploring differences in flavour they can coax via different beans, roasts, fermentations, conches etc. They don’t want, or need, to cover up the flavours they are working to reveal. So they very rarely use vanilla in their dark chocolate bars.


Vanilla is anything but “plain”! It’s worth pondering its extraordinary history and science (see last week’s blog post). And it’s worth exploring for yourself how vanilla works it’s magic on the below selection of bars.

Wishing you all a great weekend!


P.S. We are delighted to launch a new set of Kids Tastings for June half term. Please see here for more details. And share your thoughts/register your interest in this form.