The vanilla plant was originally from South America and was discovered by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes. He witnessed the Aztec Emperor drinking a chocolate beverage flavored with the seeds of the vanilla plant. Then it was brought back to Europe where people fell in love with it. Vanilla is the spice from the pod of orchids from the vanilla plant. So, what is vanillin or the ingredient that we commonly see on the back of our ice cream? Vanillin is actually the molecule that gives vanilla its distinct smell and taste. Vanillin is only one of 200-250 other chemicals inside of vanilla extracted from the plant.
Naturally extracting vanilla flavor is very hard, because the plant is only grown in select regions around the equator where the environment is ideal, or in some greenhouses. It is primarily produced in Madagascar, Indonesia, and Comoros. The pollination of the plant is very labor-intensive and requires a lot of time as it can only be done by hand. It also takes some time for the plant to become ripe. But the demand for products flavored with vanilla is very high and only increasing
So How Do We Have Vanilla Flavored Ice-Cream?
Science! In actuality, only 1% of vanilla flavoring we use comes from the vanilla plant. Thanks to science, the vanillin chemical is extracted through multiple different methods allowing all of us to enjoy readily available vanilla flavored products. Originally, two German chemists, Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann discovered a way to make vanillin by synthesizing tree sap. Then even more ways to create vanillin were discovered, including using lignin that is found in wood pulp. But currently the cheapest and most effective way to make vanillin is using guaiacol that is created from petrochemicals. This method produces about 85% of the synthesized vanillin used in everything you love.
This raises the classic problem of what is natural and what is synthetic. Vanillin is a natural chemical found in nature but when it is made synthetically it is not considered natural anymore. So, scientists are looking for other ways to make vanillin with living organisms so it could be labeled as natural. They are looking at using fermentation of ferulic acid to biologically convert it into vanillin using genetically modified yeast. This has its worries and potential problems, but it is something that is still being explored. The price of naturally extracted vanillin is approximately 300 times more expensive than synthetic vanillin. That is why natural vanillin is only used in special things that require it.
Vanillin also has a cousin called Ethylvanillin which is similar with just some small molecular differences. Ethylvanillin is 3-5 stronger than regular vanillin but is relatively expensive. It can be used in conjunction with regular vanillin to mimic the natural flavor and aroma vanilla.
Vanillin and the Pharmaceutical Industry
We all have our favorite vanilla flavored products like chocolates, milkshakes, pastries and multiple other baked goods. My favorite is ice-cream! But vanillin is used in so much more than just foods. It is also an important part of perfumes and drugs. Believe it or not, 5% of vanillin is used to make drugs. It is used as an intermediate to manufacture several very important drugs like Aldomet (used to treat symptoms of high blood pressure and kidney problems), and L-DOPA (a precursor to important molecules like adrenaline).
As with anything that goes into our food it is important to ask the question, is it safe? Yes! Vanillin is generally recognized as safe by the FDA under 21 CFR 182.60 (code of federal regulation). Vanilla has been used for centuries with almost no known side effects.
Looking for vanillin? Here at Ingredi.com, we have different types and sizes:
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