The Bittersweet Story of Vanilla

In a hurry, the farmers search through tangles of vines for the waxy, pale blooms that emerge for one morning annually. They raise the thin membrane between the male and female halves of the bloom using tiny, pointed sticks. They press the segments towards one another to guarantee pollination with their thumbs and fingers.

According to culinary writer Sarah Lohman in her work Eight Flavors, “the deep green base of the bloom expands almost instantly” if the marriage is practical. The swelling base develops into a fruit that develops into a yellow seedpod and ultimately splits.

Pollination of the Plant

Pollination of the Plant

A priceless blossom that might have developed into a pod is lost if pollination is delayed or the plant is damaged. That’s an expensive oversight for vanilla, which has grown to be one of the most popular and profitable spices in history. Prices for natural vanilla now average over $300 per pound, and there are approximately 18,000 items on the market containing vanilla flavour due to consumers’ voracious appetite for this aromatic spice.

Even though hand pollination is a laborious process, it is not uncommon. In Mesoamerican tropical woods, the creeping vine thrived long before vanilla’s flavour caught on with Europeans. Although the Totonac inhabitants of present-day Veracruz, Mexico, are recognised as the originators of vanilla, the first records of its use date back to the pre-Columbian Maya. The Maya employed vanilla in a beverage prepared with cacao and other spices. Following their conquest of the Totonacan kingdom, the Aztecs introduced vanilla to the drink called chocolate, enjoyed by the aristocracy.

Conquest of the Aztecs From the Spanish

Conquest of the Aztecs From the Spanish

The sweet-smelling blossom and cacao were introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquerors in 1519. It was grown in botanic gardens in England and France. In 1836, Belgian horticulturist Charles Morren revealed the Melipona natural pollinator. Despite new research, Euglossine bees could be the orchid’s primary pollinator.

Everything on the 39-mile-long volcanic hotspot of Reunion Island altered five years later. The laborious but successful hand-pollination technique for vanilla, still used to date, was created in 1841 by an enslaved child called Edmond Albius. This technique entails uncovering and pairing the male and female portions of the flower. His method increased the amount of vanilla produced by bees and eventually spread back to Madagascar, Mexico, and other nearby islands.


The Global Taste for Vanilla

This overabundance fueled global interest in vanilla. The spice gained popularity for its intoxicating taste and scent and swiftly made its way into desserts, perfumes, medicines, ice cream, and many more. However, despite the market growth and a healthy harvest, farmers’ capacity to meet demand was hampered—and is still hampered—by the enormous amount of time and effort required for cultivation. Manual pollination is used to generate almost all industrial vanilla production today.

According to Tim McCollum, founder of Madécasse ( chocolate and vanilla firm), vanilla needs considerable talent to develop. You can’t merely plant a seed, care for it, and wait for it to bear fruit. You need to incorporate hand pollination. For four generations, most farmers have produced vanilla. Small-scale farmers have an incredible sixth instinct.

Furthermore, the crop must be treated and dried before the familiar and beloved vanilla fragrances, and tastes may be experienced. Therefore, it is important to understand how to nurture the plants when they yield fruits. McCollum states that after harvesting, the beans are graded and sorted. They are then put in large containers to sweat for 36 to 48 hours after being boiled in hot water to stop the fermentation process. He explains that it is when the vanilla beans begin to turn from green to brown and when they start to produce a scent.


The Beans Undergo Alternating Periods

The beans process takes about five to fifteen days, slowly drying with intervals of solar drying throughout the day and sweating at night. According to McCollum, this often occurs in a ventilated chamber where beans are hung on racks. The length of time depends on the grade and might reach one month. It takes a year to complete, from growing and pollinating to drying, treatment, and shipment preparation.

Vanilla is one of the most costly exotic spices, after saffron, and it takes around 5-7 kilograms of green vanilla beans to make one kilogram of processed vanilla.

Where Does Vanilla Originate

Where Does Vanilla Originate?

However, a little of the vanilla originates from those treasured pods. Nowadays, synthetic vanilla flavour makes up the majority of what we consume. Less than 1% of the overall worldwide market for vanilla is primarily generated from vanilla beans, according to Iain Fraser, a lecturer of agri-environmental economics at Kent University.

The primary ingredient that gives vanilla its distinctive scent, vanillin, was discovered by scientists in the 19th century and may now be obtained from less costly sources. Those are lignin, which is present in plants, wood pulp, and even cow dung, and eugenol, a chemical component that may be found in clove oil. Currently, guaiacol from petrochemicals accounts for around 85% of the vanillin produced. Due to labelling’s potential for confusion, not many of us are aware of this.


Vanilla is a Plant 

The taste we associate with vanilla comprises up to 250 chemical components, including vanillin. Natural flavours come from spices, fruits, herbs, edible yeast, buds, bark, vegetables, leaves, roots, or other plant products whose primary purpose is flavouring food rather than being nutritive, according to the Food and Drug Administration. While the chemical makeup of the two items is identical, artificial flavouring is considered to be obtained from components that fall beyond those restrictions.

According to food scientist Anneline Padayachee, artificial vanilla bean extract is the same chemical as the vanilla bean itself. However, they are derived from several by-products. But what makes the difference? When added to ice cream, there is a “clear difference,” according to Padayachee. Actual extraction is thicker, deeper in colour, and flecked with little seed pieces. Local variations in vanillin production in the bean lead to regional variations in taste characteristics. Instead of being unique, artificial vanillin derived from lignin or guaiacol is relatively standard.

She continues by saying that since numerous auxiliary flavour molecules break down when food is cooked, expert taste judges haven’t been able to distinguish between genuine and synthetic vanilla flavours when used in cakes and cookies.

Currently, the environmental impact of this need for affordable vanilla flavour is high. The manufacturing of these compounds generates a live feed of effluent that needs treatment before being released into surface water. Additionally, the catalysts used in vanillin production are polluting and should be used once. As a result, the authors created a brand-new catalyst that eliminates the polluting phase while separating the vanillin. Ideally, this catalyst may be recycled, which, scientists believe, would produce a more eco-friendly means of producing the appealing molecule.

That artificial vanilla will come in handy since customer preferences don’t only determine actual vanilla costs. Most of the world’s vanilla is produced in Madagascar, where Cyclone Enawo hit on March 7, 2017. The deadly storm, the third-largest cyclone ever recorded, struck a nation already suffering from years of drought. Sambava and Antalaha, two of Madagascar’s main vanilla production areas, suffered a direct effect.

The Report of the Cook Flavoring Company

The Report of the Cook Flavoring Company

The first field reports are “startling,” as shown in a market analysis released by Vanilla Supply Company on March 8. They said that between 90 and 100 % of the harvest in Antalaha and 80 % in Sambava were both devastated. The typhoon would undoubtedly have a significant detrimental effect on the vanilla marketplace.

The company’s director, Josephine Lochhead, expects that the damage may result in the early harvesting of hurricane vanilla.  It would be the same as picking wine grapes in California in May rather than September. The final 3–4 months on the plant are when the vanilla bean develops all of its fragrances. The final four months are crucial since the bean matures and produces its taste compounds, even if it reaches its overall weight at five months.

Price Volatility

Price Volatility 

Patricia Rain, a culinary expert and proprietor of The Vanilla Company claims that this price fluctuation is unprecedented. It is partly the outcome of tropical storm seasons, which a changing climate may alter in unanticipated ways.

Producers must quickly find consumers for their vanilla beans because once they are picked, they begin to ferment. Local growers often sell their green beans to intermediaries who combine them more significantly and distribute them to regional curing industries. Green bean prices fluctuate depending on demand, so these producers’ choices for haggling for a better price are constrained. Rain explains that whenever the payment reaches the people curing and drying the beans, they begin to scoop them up. It goes through many hands.

All these people are involved, from the merchants who supply the vanilla beans to the retailers who store them. According to Rain, farmers destroy harvests when costs for cured beans fall due to uncertainty about pricing or an upswing in supply. Given the persistently low prices, they cannot afford to keep growing vanilla. Early in 2005, green bean demand dropped below $20 per kilo (about $10 per lb) until 2014. The price rise was based on the supposition that the 2014 vanilla crop would be minimal owing to inadequate pollination.

The Losses

The Losses 

The casualties from Cyclone Enawo will have an effect, according to David van der Walde, director of Canadian vanilla distributor Aust & Hachmann. Still, a cyclone of this size could only wreak far more havoc. He adds that only 20–30% of the harvest will be impacted.  A severe storm may only ultimately damage a portion of the crop; vines would be killed and several startled by the wind. Van der Walde emphasises that there had been a lot of burglaries and early gathering before the storm, which impacted the crop’s value.

Van der Walde, notwithstanding these difficulties, thinks that the most significant danger to vanilla goes past environmental and economic issues to include individuals’ unquenchable desire for the commodity. The most excellent vanilla supplier worldwide is the United States; according to Lohman in Eight Flavors: Every American citizen consumes around 5.4 grams of vanilla yearly, and the whole population consumes over 638 million beans annually.

The diverse flavours

The diverse flavours 

The flavours that Padayachee mentions result from the genetic factors of the vanilla bean and the regions where it is cultivated. Tahitian vanilla has flowery undertones, whereas Bourbon vanilla, dubbed for the region where hand-pollination was discovered, has a sweet, rum-like taste. Van der Walde estimates that Indonesian vanilla makes up around 25% of the world’s production. As a result of drying methods, Indonesian vanilla commonly exhibits smoky qualities, whereas Mexican vanilla, making up less than 5%, exhibits spicy and woody overtones.

The growers who tenderly cultivate, pollinate, and harvest the crop are also supporters. Approximately 70% of the population of Madagascar, where 60–80% of the world’s vanilla is produced, is poor and is now coping with the storm’s effects. Economic forecasts and environmental issues significantly impact the livelihoods of these producers.

Bottom Line 

How, therefore, can you maximise the return on investment? According to Madécasse’s McCollum, it’s done by inspecting the vanilla bean before purchasing. The beans are old and should not be bought if you detect the slightest rattling.

 Vanilla beans should be very soft, so you must avoid abnormally large beans since they were probably not adequately cured. However, he asserts that tasting it is the ideal way to understand the distinctions fully.