Posted on Leave a comment

Vanilla vs Vanillin

Natural vs. Artificial Flavourings

The distinct flavour which we know as vanilla may not be as straightforward as you think. Vanilla’s price has risen from $20 a kilo to over $600 in the space of a single decade. However, the image of naturally dried vanilla pods so often on the packaging may not wholly reflect its content. This commonplace, warm and aromatic flavour has a synthetic counterpart; vanillin. 

Whilst the pairing of vanilla and dark chocolate can be questionable, ‘artificial vanillin’ and vanilla in milk and white chocolate makes a strong case. In fact, some synthetic vanillins may be better both environmentally and flavour-wise, rather than natural vanilla flavouring. 

The Origins of Vanillin

While the production of vanilla was booming in the Indian Ocean with huge exports from Réunion and Madagascar, the rise in the popularity of the foodstuff drove scientists to work on ways to artificially create its flavour. Vanilla pods have hundreds of flavour compounds (estimates range from 250 to 500). Vanillin is the singular critical flavour note that actually creates most of that magic vanilla flavour.

1858: French pharmacist, Nicholas-Theodore Gobley, synthesised vanillin crystals which kickstarts an ongoing quest to discover new ways to grow and artificially produce vanilla’s magic flavour.

Vanillin or 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde as it’s known to its friends…

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 (lucrative) approaches to creating vanillin have been developed, including…

  • From lignin: a natural polymer found in wood and a by-product of making paper, used for perfume.
  • From clove oil and guiacol: as a cheaper alternative to pine tree sap initially created from wood and coal pyrolysis.
  • From petrochemicals (also used to create guaiacol)
  • From castoreum: secreted from the anal glands of beavers. Thankfully, not a widely used source of vanillin!
  • From yeast cells: gene-editing techniques ferment common sugar feedstocks.

Today, the vanillin sourced through these approaches produces over 99% of ‘vanilla’ products. The flavouring extracted from the vanilla pods (grown on the vanilla orchid) account for just 1%.

“Artificial” vs. “Natural” Vanilla

Labelling here becomes distinctly tricky. 

The 1% of products (like MenakaoFruitionSolstice, 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 biotechniques 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, there are reports of criminal gangs and drug smugglers who use dried vanilla to launder money, thanks to its scarcity and extreme light weight. In turn, this has encouraged theft and violence toward the vanilla farmers as prices of vanilla have skyrocketed.

‘Real’ vanilla could be comparable to the likes of blood diamonds in this grave situation.

It’s just like craft chocolate. Be conscious of where your real vanilla is being sourced from, and the situation for farmers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.