How is Vanilla Grown?
Sometimes called the “queen of spices”, vanilla is commonly used for its sweet flavour and floral scent. But how is vanilla grown? Natural vanilla beans are notoriously difficult to grow, so new ways have had to be invented to meet the huge demand for this popular flavouring.
Call it basic, call it bland, but vanilla is one of the most familiar flavours in the world. All manner of sweet treats are seasoned with this fragrant spice, and its enticing aroma is used in everything from soaps and perfumes to candles and oils.
On its own, it is often considered a simple and classic taste, however vanilla is also an important component for other popular flavours such as chocolate, caramel, strawberry, and coconut. Bakers and cooks use vanilla to add sweetness, balance bitterness, and impart creaminess to their finished foods.
Early Uses of Vanilla Flavour
Long before vanilla became a favourite in Europe and the rest of the world, it was mixed into a cacao-based beverage drunk by the Maya in Mesoamerica. A similar drink called chocolatl was consumed by Aztec nobility, and after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, cacao and vanilla were among the foods brought back to Europe.1
Fun fact: Early on, vanilla was treated as something added to chocolate. However, around the 17th century, an apothecary named Hugh Morgan started experimenting with vanilla as a spice on its own. He invented totally vanilla sweetmeats that became a favourite at the court of Queen Elizabeth I.2
The Origins Of Bourbon Vanilla
Vanilla may be familiar to you in the form of dry, thin pods 6-to-10-inch-long that can be broken open to scrape out the tiny, black seeds within. These vanilla beans are actually the dried fruit produced by a species of orchid from which the spice derives its name: Vanilla planifolia.
Horticulturalists in France and England struggled to cultivate vanilla orchids in the botanical gardens of Europe, but these flowers never developed fruit because the orchid’s natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, was back in south-eastern Mexico.
It was only in 1841 that a 12-year-old enslaved worker named Edmond Albius discovered a painstaking method for hand-pollinating each flower by pressing together its pollen-coated male part against its female part.3
The technique spread from Albius’s home on the French island of Réunion to nearby Madagascar, where orchids continue to be pollinated by hand by smallholder farmers who produce around 80% of the world’s natural vanilla.4 There are other major producers of natural vanilla beans including Indonesia, Tahiti, Uganda, and Mexico—but to many food experts, the so-called “Bourbon Vanilla” from Madagascar is still considered the best.
Why Is Natural Vanilla So Expensive?
Originally from Central and South America and the Caribbean, the vanilla orchid grows in hot, humid climates as vines that wrap around trees or frames, and it thrives around other species of plants and trees—making it difficult to establish any form of monocultural plantation.5 Growing vanilla is incredibly labour-intensive, which is why it is one of the most expensive spices on the market—second only to saffron and regularly selling for several hundred euro per kg.
Each vine takes 3-4 years to mature, and the orchids flower for 24 hours or so just once per year, which means that growers have to check each individual bloom so that they can hand-pollinate them with a wooden needle at just the right time—miss one and that flower will not fruit until the next growing season.
For the 6-9 months after pollination and before harvest, farmers have to watch over their crops vigilantly—sometimes choosing to sleep with their crops—to prevent “vanilla thieves” from stealing what is often their only source of income.6
It is difficult to tell by sight when vanilla pods are ready to be harvested, but smallholder farmers have developed a “sixth sense” for when these beans are ready to be removed from the vine.7 The beans only begin to develop their signature vanilla aroma and flavour after being cured and dried, and they need to be quickly sorted and graded before being sold to a curing facility.
How Vanilla Pods Are Processed
Curing the vanilla beans takes several more months, and involves multiple steps that are all done by hand.8
- Kilning. The vanilla beans are immersed in hot water (60℃-80℃ depending on the quality of the beans) to stop them from fermenting.
- Sunning and “sweating”. For 7-10 days, the pods are alternately sunned during the day, then densely stacked together to “sweat” at night to raise their temperature and allow water to escape to prevent spoilage. Enough moisture is still retained in the beans for enzymatic reactions that are important for developing the vanilla flavour and aroma as well as changing the pods from green to brown.
- Drying. Vanilla pods are then left out to dry at room temperature.
- Conditioning/Packaging. The beans are placed in closed boxes for several months to encourage more biochemical reactions that produce the flavour profile and aromatic composition of vanilla.
From growing to pollinating then harvesting and curing, close to a year of work is put into a crop of vanilla beans before they are ready for export, and this work is done entirely by people without the aid of machinery—something unheard of in such a highly-mechanised industry as food production.
Adding to the pressure on vanilla farmers is the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that will worsen if climate change continues unchecked, and this will also affect the already high price of natural vanilla.9
Because most vanilla is produced by growers on a limited scale, there is no way that natural vanilla production—which yielded around 1,100 and 1,200 metric tonnes in 2019—can match the global demand for vanilla, and less than 1% of vanilla flavour being used in foods or scented products comes from real vanilla beans.10
Instead, alternative synthetic methods have had to be created to derive vanillin—that is the organic compound that most contributes to the recognisable vanilla taste, and to make it in large quantities at more affordable prices.
Vanillin: Producing The Vanilla Flavour
Vanillin is every way identical whether it is synthesised in a vanilla bean or done chemically in a lab. The reason why vanilla extract from beans is bolder and more complex than synthetically produced vanillin is that the natural vanilla contains a combination of 250 other compounds that make up its full flavour.11
However, these extra compounds—the ones that hint at cinnamon, rum, and flora—will be cooked out of foods at higher temperatures anyway, so only foods like pudding, ice cream or yoghurt really benefit from natural vanilla flavouring.12
Fun fact: Food experts have done small-scale tests where they offered people cookies that were baked using vanilla extract from natural or synthesised sources. They found that 2:1 people preferred the taste of cookies with artificial vanillin compared to the natural vanilla!13
The Science Behind Vanillin
Most vanillin is produced from compounds derived from petrochemicals—namely guaiacol and glyoxylic acid—and around 85% of artificial vanillin comes from this source. The second largest source of vanillin comes from wood pulp, or rather lignin from plant tissues that is oxidised with caustic lye and sulphides.14 However, vanillin synthesis from lignin uses copper substances that are not safe for human consumption, so this type of artificial vanillin is used instead for perfumes and pharmaceuticals.15
In recent years, there has been a drive fuelled by consumer demand that manufacturers use more sustainable and “all-natural” ingredients, but food makers have had a difficult time coping with the small and uncertain output of natural vanilla. These companies have either had to reformulate recipes to use less vanilla, or look for alternative ways to produce vanillin from reactions that occur naturally.16
Fun Fact: Vanillin can also be produced from castoreum—a secretion from the anal glands and castor sacs of beavers, which the animals use to stake an olfactory claim to their territories. As it comes from an animal, this vanillin is considered “natural”—but the method is rarely used today as its difficult and invasive to extract castoreum from live beavers.17
Newer methods for producing vanillin involve gene-editing to introduce biosynthetic genes into yeast cells so that these cells produce vanillin through fermentation. As bioconversion methods usually rely on cheap and easily available supplies of sugar, they have the potential to be more sustainable and reliable for synthesising vanillin. Unfortunately, the process is not easy to scale up and is not yet widely used in the industry.18
The story of the vanilla flavour has been a long and complex one already, spanning warfare and royalty as well as agricultural and scientific innovation—but it’s not over yet—and it will take still more luck and perseverance in future to make sure that there is always a steady supply of the world’s most popular flavour.
What’s the best vanilla flavour you’ve ever tried? Do you think it was from natural vanilla or synthetic vanillin? Comment below to let us know!