The distinct flavour which we know as vanilla may not be as straightforward as you think. Its popularity is evident in its staggering rise in price from $20 a kilo to over $600 in the space of a decade. However, the image of natural dried vanilla pods adorning packaging may not reflect its content. This commonplace, warm and aromatic flavour has a synthetic counterpart – vanillin.
There are strong cases to be made for ‘artificial vanillin’ and vanilla in milk and white chocolate, but eyebrows can be raised with dark chocolate. In fact, some synthetic vanillins may be better environmentally and flavour-wise than natural vanilla flavouring.
The Origins of Vanillin
Now, we will discuss the origins of synthetic counterpart to vanilla; vanillin. As explored in last week’s article, the production of vanilla was booming in the Indian Ocean with huge exports from Reunion and Madagascar.
Meanwhile, with the rise in popularity of vanilla, 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.
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” vs. “Natural” Vanilla
Labelling here becomes distinctly tricky.
The 1% of products (like Menakao, Fruition, Solstice, and some other milk chocolates) that are made with Madagascan Vanilla (for example) are easy to identify.
However ‘artificial’ vs. ‘natural’ vs. ‘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 where your real vanilla is being sourced from, and the situation for the farmers.
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