The main species harvested for vanilla is vanilla planifolia. Although the vanilla plant, an orchid, is native to Mexico, it is now widely grown throughout the tropics with Madagascar being the world's largest producer. Vanilla plants grow as a vine, climbing up an existing tree, pole, or other support. It can be grown in a wood (on trees), in a plantation (on trees or poles), or in a "shader", in increasing orders of productivity. Left alone, it will grow as high as possible on the support, with few flowers. Every year, growers fold the higher parts of the plant downwards so that the plant stays at accessible heights. This also greatly stimulates flowering.
The distinctively flavored compounds are found in the fruit, which results from the pollination of the vanilla flower. One flower produces one fruit. Vanilla planifolia flowers are hermaphroditic: they carry both male and female organs. To avoid self-pollenization, a membrane separates those organs. The flowers may only be naturally pollinated by a specifically equipped bee found in Mexico. Growers have tried to bring this bee into other growing locales without success. Thus the only way to produce the vanilla fruits, the vanilla beans, is artificial pollination. A simple and efficient artificial pollination method was introduced in 1841 by a 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius on Réunion: a method still used today. Using a piece of bamboo one can fold back the membrane separating the anther and the stigma, and then press the anther on the stigma. In that way the flower is self-pollinated, and will produce a fruit.
The vanilla flower only lasts about one day, sometimes less! Therefore, farmers have to inspect their plantations every day for open flowers on the vanilla plants, a labor-intensive task. The fruit (a seed pod), if left on the plant, will ripen and open at the end. The fruit contains tiny, flavorless seeds. In dishes prepared with whole natural vanilla, these seeds are recognizable as black specks. Vanilla seeds will not germinate without the presence of certain mycorrhizal fungi. Therefore, farmers reproduce the plants by cutting: they remove sections of the vine with six or more leaf nodes, a root opposite each leaf. The two lower leaves are removed, and this area is buried in loose soil at the base of a support. The remaining upper roots will cling to the support, and often grow down into the soil.
Vanilla has four stages of production: harvest, killing, sweating, and drying. The vanilla beans or pods are harvested while green, immature, and odorless. In the killing stage the tissue of the bean is killed to prevent further growing. The method of killing varies, but may be accomplished by sun, oven, hot water, scratching, or freezing. During the sweating phase the pods are held for 7 to 10 days under hot and humid conditions. The beans are often placed into fabric covered boxes immediately after boiling. This allows enzymes to process the compounds in the pods into vanillin and other compounds important to the ultimate vanilla flavor. In the last stage the vanilla beans (pods) are dried to prevent rotting and to lock the aroma in the vanilla beans. The vanilla beans are laid out in the sun during the mornings and returned to their boxes in the afternoon. The cured vanilla beans have lost 60-70% of their moisture and will exhibit their fullest aromatic qualities. Once fully cured, the vanilla is sorted by quality and graded.
Vanilla beans are native to tropical America. There are over 150 varieties of vanilla orchid plants but only two species are used commercially to flavor and fragrance foods and beverages; Bourbon and Tahitian. Bourbon beans are botanically known as Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrans and originally came from the Gulf Coast of Mexico. When grown in Mexico they're called Mexican beans. On the other hand, beans from the same plant stock are called Bourbon beans if they grow in Madagascar, Indonesia, and many other regions. The big exception is the beans from Tahiti. Even though Tahitian vanilla is now considered its own species, the original plant stock also came from Mexico.
There are many compounds present in the extracts of vanilla, the compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is primarily responsible for the characteristic flavor and smell of vanilla. Another (minor) component of vanilla essential oil is piperonal (heliotropin). Piperonal and other substances affect the odor of natural vanilla.
There are three main commercial preparations of natural vanilla: whole beans, powder, and extract. Vanilla flavoring in food may be achieved by adding vanilla extract or by cooking vanilla beans in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the pods are split in two, exposing more of the pod's surface area to the liquid. In this case, the pods' seeds are mixed into the preparation. Natural vanilla gives a brown or yellow color to preparations, depending on the concentration.
Good quality vanilla has a strong aromatic flavor, but food with small amounts of low quality vanilla or artificial vanilla-like flavorings are far more common, since true vanilla is much more expensive. Pure natural vanilla gives us one of the most complex tastes in the world, having well over 250 organic components creating its unique flavor and aroma. Even the same species of vanilla beans grown in different parts of the world will vary in flavor and aroma due to climate and soil differences. While some beans are higher in natural vanillin content than others, this isn't the only indicator of flavor or quality.
A major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream and coca-cola. The cosmetics industry uses vanilla to make perfume. In old medicinal literature, vanilla is described as an aphrodisiac and a remedy for fevers. These purported uses have never been scientifically proven, but it has been shown that vanilla does increase levels of catecholamines (including epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline), and as such can also be considered mildly addictive. The essential oils of vanilla and vanillin are sometimes used in aromatherapy.
Summary of Vanilla Facts
- Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, the largest family of flowering plants in the world.
- It's a tropical orchid, and there are about 150 varieties of vanilla plants, though only two types, Bourbon and Tahitian, are used commercially.
- Vanilla plants grows within the 20-degree band either side of the Equator and is native to the Americas. Vanilla planifolia grows on the Atlantic Gulf side of Mexico from Tampico around to the northeast tip of South America, and from Colima, Mexico to Ecuador on the Pacific side. It also grows throughout the Caribbean.
- The Totonaca people of the Gulf coast of Mexico were probably the first people to cultivate vanilla plants. They taught many other indigenous people how to grow vanilla plants during MesoAmerican times, and they continue to cultivate the fruit that they consider was given to them by the gods.
- Vanilla first left Mexico in the early 1500s on ships bound for Spain. It was originally believed only to have value as a perfume. It wasn't until Cortes arrived in 1519 that the Spaniards learned it was also a flavor.
- Until the late 19th century, Mexico had the monopoly on growing vanilla plants, but now Madagascar and Indonesia grow the majority of the world's crop. Additional countries that grow vanilla include Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uganda, China, India, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti, and the Philippines.
- Vanilla is the world's most labor-intensive agricultural crop, which is why it's so expensive. It will take up to three years after the vines are planted before the first flowers appear. The fruits, which resemble big green beans, must remain on the vine for nine months in order to completely develop their signature aroma. However, when the beans are harvested, they have neither flavor nor fragrance. They develop these distinctive properties during the curing process.
- When the beans are harvested, they are treated with hot water or heat and are then placed in the sun every day for weeks-to-months until they have shrunk to 20% of their original size. After this process is complete, the beans are sorted for size and quality. Then they will rest for a month or two to finish developing their full flavor and fragrance. By the time they are shipped around the world, their aroma is quite remarkable!
- Because vanilla has always been so valuable, it has a long history of robbery and intrigue. In Madagascar, vanilla rustling was a major problem for many years. Growers branded the individual beans when they were green and the markings remained after they were dried. Whenever someone suspected their beans were stolen, they could determine by their distinctive tattoo whether or not the beans were theirs.
- Bourbon vanilla is named for the islands now known as Reunion and the Comoros, but in the early 19th century were called the Bourbon Islands. The Bourbon vanilla plant stock originally came from Mexico. Bourbon vanilla and Mexican vanilla are basically the same.
- Tahitian vanilla also originally comes from Mexican plant stock, but it mutated at some point in the last fifty to sixty years and became its own species. It is significantly different from Bourbon and Mexican vanilla.
- The United States is the world's largest consumer of vanilla, followed by Europe - especially France. About 1400 tons of dried vanilla is produced worldwide each year. Our worldwide interest in natural vanilla has grown considerably in the past several years, however, and the current annual demand is for 2200 tons of vanilla.
- Vanilla is not only used as a flavor in foods and beverages, but also in perfumes. It's also used in many industrial applications such as a flavoring for medicines and as a fragrance to conceal the strong smell of rubber tires, paint, and cleaning products.
- The dairy industry uses a large percentage of the world's vanilla in ice creams, yogurt (fresh and frozen), and other flavored dairy products. Despite all the wonderful ice cream choices available in the market place, vanilla is still the most favorite flavor.
- Because vanilla is so much in demand, and because it's so expensive, synthetics are often used instead of natural vanilla. In fact, 97% of vanilla used as a flavor and fragrance is synthetic.