22 April 2012

Vanilla and vanillin

In an article about artificial vs. natural flavors, Edible Geography discusses the history of vanilla -
While cinnamon in the United States is a government-sanctioned imposter, plain old vanilla is, surprisingly enough, a relatively recent addition to the American flavourscape. In addition to Chase’s fake fruit syrups, the mid-nineteenth century saw vanilla replace rosewater in creams, jellies, puddings, cakes, pies, cookies, sodas, and more, in just a few decades. This wholesale taste takeover came about as the result of the accidental discovery, in 1842, of a method for artificially pollinating the vanilla orchid — which in turn led to natural vanilla extract becoming cheap enough to be ubiquitous.

That price has continued to drop as vanilla — America’s favourite ice-cream flavour by a significant margin — can now be made in any number of ways, some of which have stretched the boundaries of U.S. FDA definitions of “natural,” and “artificial” flavouring

It seems straightforward, initially: Natural vanilla flavour must be extracted from chopped up vanilla beans... Artificial vanilla flavour consists of nature-identical vanillin (the chemical that gives vanilla its characteristic flavour) that is made from something other than vanilla beans — typically wood pulp, as a by-product of the paper industry, although it can sometimes be derived from coal tar.

However, just to add a further twist, vanillin can also be made by using a particular bacteria to ferment the ferulic acid found in corn and wheat bran, and, because the FDA has determined that a flavour is “natural” if it is derived from edible sources and made using physical, microbiological, or enzymatic means analogous to a normal cooking process, this ferulic vanillin (which is chemically identical to the wood pulp and coal tar vanillin) is considered a natural flavouring — although (the FDA has ruled, after extensive consultation) it is not a natural vanilla flavour, because it doesn’t come from vanilla beans.
 - and notes in passing that vanillin has been synthesized from cow dung (by FDA ruling an artificial, not natural flavour).

Pure, true vanilla is "the second most expensive spice after saffron" (because extracting it from the seed pods is so labor intensive).  So what we're eating is vanillin, not true vanilla.


  1. This is why I buy vanilla bean pods and leave them soaking in a bottle of vodka - thus producing my own vanilla extract. More of a tincture, I suppose, really, but it tastes amazing.

  2. "cinnamon in the United States is a government-sanctioned imposter"...?

    1. It's cassia. Try reading the link - that's why I put links in posts.

    2. While the cheap cassia you get at the average American mega-mart is OK proper Saigon cassia is much more flavorful than true cinnamon in my estimation.

  3. Cook's Illustrated famously found that, at least for baking, imitation vanilla is perhaps better than pure vanilla. (http://www.cooksillustrated.com/tastetests/overview.asp?docid=18889) It seems wrong that this should be the case, and on the message board I looked at to confirm my memory of this, there were anti-artificial-ingredient cooks who maintained they still wouldn't use imitation vanilla for any reason. But I'm just as happy to pay less for a better-tasting product. If I made a lot of pudding or ice cream, I might keep both on hand.

  4. I can deal with wood pulp or fermented corn. At least it's not made from the anal gland of beavers.

    No, really, guess which artificial flavor is made from the anal glands of beavers.

    (This is not a joke.)

    1. http://didyouknowarchive.com/?p=1192

      Apparently the beaver piss is also used to replace vanilla occasionally. Don't get me wrong, the whole finding the chemicals in other places is pretty cool, but I'm a natural freak, and I like my vanilla from beans.

      By the way, making vanilla is actually quite exciting, and if you make it in large amounts, fairly cheap too. Well, cheaper than buying that much vanilla anyway.

  5. It never really bothered me that most "vanilla extract" came from wood pulp.

    That wonderful sweet smell of sawdust in a wood-shop is, in large part, the natural vanillin being released from the wood.

    If they can extract and bottle that for me cheaply I don't mind.


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