The origin of vanilla: Everything you want to know about the world’s sweetest spice

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

As a life-long science geek, one of my hero/favorite authors has long been Cal Tech physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. His collection of short works, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, reads like a how-to manual on living an eccentric, eclectic and brilliant professional life. It is clear that for Feynman, every situation was a problem to be solved and every question, a chance for investigation. His writings make it abundantly clear that brilliance is less about knowing the answers and more about coming up with the questions.

A few days ago, Cosmo Bosella, one of Yew Dell’s talented horticulturists, walked into my office with a simple question. It seems Cosmo had been reading up on vanilla – that culinary elixir of life and nectar of the gods that just happens to come from the seed of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia).

Cosmo’s question was this:

If the Vanilla orchid is native to South and Central America, “what’s the deal with Madagascar vanilla?”

Good question, Cosmo! Feynman would be proud . . .

I had to admit to Cosmo that for as long as I’ve been baking I’ve had Madagascar vanilla in my spice cabinet. In fact I think I also currently have a bottle of Tahitian vanilla as well. But with all the gallons I’ve gone through over the years it never occurred to me to ask that simple question. Exactly what’s the deal with Madagascar (and Tahitian!) vanilla?

Vanilla orchid cultivation dates back as far as the Totonacs in the 1400s and then the Aztecs in what is current day Mexico. Supposedly the conquistador Cortez brought it back to Spain and from there it found its way into, well, just about everything worth eating! It was then distributed throughout the tropical world including Madagascar, Tahiti and, quite importantly, Reunion Island.

In its native range the vanilla orchid flower is pollinated by a locally native bee species and to a lesser extent by a few hummingbird species. Once pollinated it forms long, string bean like pods up to 8-10” long containing tiny black specks of seeds – the source of the magical flavor. But the kicker is, vanilla is essentially a vine that grows up to several hundred feet long. Its pods can take up to 9 months to mature. In short, this is a miserable agricultural crop to cultivate and incredibly labor intensive to produce.

To make matters worse, in many tropical areas outside of its native range there appears to be no appropriate pollinator for the vanilla flowers. And it wasn’t until sometime in the mid 1800s that a young slave boy on Reunion Island figured out how to hand pollinate the flowers with the flick of a small stick – the method still used today on Madagascar and Reunion, the source of the great majority of real vanilla seed extract available on the market today. As for Tahitian vanilla . . . same goes except for the one difference being that most Tahitian vanilla comes from a hybrid resulting from a cross between Vanilla planifolia and a closely related species, V. odorata, another Central American species. 

And to make matters worse, a series of major hurricanes that impacted much of the vanilla production in Madagascar a few years ago has further inflated the cost of the real stuff.

Any question now about the seemingly insane cost of vanilla seed extract?

The absolutely fabulous taste and aroma of actual vanilla, the kind that comes directly from the orchid’s seeds, is incredibly complex. Its profile comes from something like 200-300 distinct chemical compounds. But the lion’s share of the flavor and aroma comes from a compound named vanillin. 

Depending on your point of view, the fact that vanillin is relatively easy to synthesize, is either a good thing or a bad thing. Pick up any bottle of “vanilla” in the grocery store and chances are better than 95% that you’re buying artificial vanilla. And don’t  let the terminology on the bottle fool you. Just ‘cause it says “natural” on the label doesn’t necessarily mean it comes from actual vanilla orchid seeds. 

It turns out that vanillin can be produced from everything from wood to petroleum to, and I’m not making this up, one report I found that listed it being produced from a substance excreted from the south end of a beaver! Some is produced by genetically engineered algae and yeast, altered to produce the vanillin compound. 

The problem with all of these, though, is that while the synthetic and orchid-seed-sourced vanillin are chemically identical, the synthetics lack the other couple of hundred minor compounds that give the real thing its depth and richness of flavor and aroma. 

Pure vanilla extract comes from vanilla orchid seeds. The flavor and aroma compounds are extracted with alcohol. Natural vanilla extract may contain vanilla orchid seed extract but will also contain extracts from other plant based sources. It’s much cheaper and can be pretty good on the flavor meter but it is highly variable. When it comes to products labeled as artificial vanilla flavor  or simply vanillin . . . you’re on your own . . . including pretty much anything from the kitchen sink to the local beaver’s butt. Your choice!

If rather than buying, you prefer to make your own, it’s apparently not too hard to do. One former Yew Dell staff member was known to purchase vanilla orchid pods (you can buy 10 pods online for about $10) and steep them in a cheap bottle of vodka. I guess you just drop the seeds in the bottle and store it under your sink next to the mason jar of moonshine for a few months. I’ve been meaning to give it a try to see how it works. But my Feynman gene keeps nagging me about that beaver extract . . .

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on January 19, 2022.

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