Where Does Vanilla Flavoring Come From?

By: Laurie L. Dove  | 
Vanilla, from orchids native to the steaming jungles of Mexico and Belize, has enchanted people for centuries to become the world's most precious spice after saffron. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images

Ah, vanilla ... there's nothing plain about it. Ever since the discovery of vanilla in the 15th century by the Totonac people who lived in the mountains of Mexico, our collective tastebuds have benefited from this aromatic and tasty additive.

Today, vanilla in all its forms remains one of the most popular flavorings in the world. The signature piquancy of vanilla is found in baked goods and ice creams, and its flavor even makes medicines more palatable.


The scent of vanilla is so pleasant that it has become an essential ingredient in everything from expensive perfumes to ubiquitous air fresheners.

There's one big problem with vanilla, though. There just isn't enough pure vanilla to go around.

And that's where vanilla flavoring comes into play. Where does vanilla flavoring come from? There are an estimated 19,841 tons (18,000 metric tons) of vanilla flavor produced annually, 85 percent of which is vanillin created from a petrochemical called guaiacol. Less than 1 percent of vanilla flavoring consumed in the world actually comes from pure vanilla produced by vanilla orchids.

So, what, exactly, are you eating in all those vanilla-flavored foods? The answer begins with the discovery — and centuries later, the synthetic duplication — of a very special bean.


The History of Vanilla

In the 15th century, the Totanacs, who lived in a region of Mexico now called Veracruz, believed the tropical, climbing orchid sprouted after the blood of a deity and her forbidden mortal lover spilled upon the ground.

The Totanacs may have been among the first people to cultivate and harvest vanilla, but it didn't take long for the rest of the world to develop a taste for vanilla too.


When the Aztecs and Spanish invaded the Totanacs at the Battle of Tenochtitlán in 1521, the invaders laid claim to the Totanacs' favored flavoring — demanding payment of vanilla as a tax and then mixing it with chocolate for its aphrodisiac qualities. In the years that followed, as vanilla made its way through the world along trade routes, the demand for it increased.

Centuries later, there is still a high demand for vanilla in consumables ranging from lattes to latkes. And, although the vanilla orchid is now commercially cultivated and harvested, a significant gap remains between the supply of vanilla and consumers' demand for vanilla and its extract.


Where Do Vanilla Beans Come From?

The vanilla pods that contain the beans of pure vanilla extract are harvested from the vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla plantifolia), which grows only in narrow swaths of planet Earth which happen to be prone to natural disasters.

For example, there is a concentration of vanilla production on the island of Madagascar, where in 2018 a series of cyclones sent the price of natural vanilla skyrocketing to $600 per kilo (2.2 pounds). Currently, the price of natural vanilla still hovers around $300 per kilo (.45 pounds). For comparison, the spice saffron — largely considered the costliest spice in the world — starts at about $550 per pound (.45 kilograms).


Raw green vanilla beans grow from the vanilla bean orchid (Vanilla planifolia), a species native to Mexico and Belize.
hilmawan nurhatmadi/Shutterstock

"The vanilla bean is famous across the globe for its aroma and flavor," says Amy Smith, ex-sous chef, founder and owner of FoodLve.com, in an email interview. "Vanilla bean is also one of the most valuable and scarce resources on Earth. Its fetching price is comparatively higher than many precious metals. As a result, natural vanilla extract is much more pricey than vanilla flavoring. Vanilla flavoring, because it is synthetically manufactured without a vanilla bean, is much, much more affordable. Not surprisingly, to avoid going bankrupt, chefs and cooks have to substitute pure vanilla with vanilla flavoring."

But from what key ingredients is imitation vanilla made?


The Great Vanilla Dupe

Pure vanilla extract is commercially created by soaking vanilla beans in a mixture of water and ethyl alcohol, or you can make your own with vanilla bean pods and vodka (or any neutral-flavored liquor).

In contrast, "an extract labeled 'vanilla flavoring' is typically made from a combination of artificial and natural ingredients," says Kate Thrane, a Minnesota-based recipe developer, in an email interview.


And those "natural" ingredients listed on the label may not actually include the vanilla bean at all, adds Thrane.

The search for vanilla flavoring began in the late 1800s when scientists sought to understand the rare and expensive vanilla bean — and its extract — at a molecular level.

In 1858, French biochemist Nicolas-Theodore Gobley crystallized vanilla extract and discovered vanillin, one of 250 compounds that comprise natural vanilla. "Vanillin is a phenolic aldehyde compound that gives vanilla its 'vanilla' flavor," says Thrane.

True vanilla comes from the seeds inside the vanilla pod.
Maren Winter/Shutterstock

In 1874, German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarman determined the molecular structure of vanillin. Then they recreated it, using not the vanilla bean but coniferin — a component of pine bark. And with the advent of synthetic vanillin came an entire industry devoted to manufacturing artificial vanilla flavoring.

"Vanilla flavoring is less expensive than actual vanilla extract because it is now mass-produced and contains no pure vanilla extract," Thrane says.

Artificial vanilla flavoring, sold as vanilla essence, imitation vanilla flavor or artificial vanilla extract, can be created out of chemical compounds in clove oil, or from the lignin found in plants, cow manure and wood pulp.

Currently, about 15 percent of artificial vanilla flavoring is made from lignin, while around 85 percent of the world's vanillin is made from guaiacol, which comes from petrochemicals. If you've ever seen firewood that is charred to form black creosote, then you've seen guaiacol. Guaiacol is one of three chemicals found in creosote. With the addition of caramel coloring and flavors such as cocoa or tea extracts, and dilution with alcohol or propylene glycol, a substance resembling vanilla extract is concocted and sold.

There is another, more sustainable way that vanilla extract is made. This method just may not seem that palatable.


The Imitation Vanilla Game

Conduct a bit of casual research into imitation vanilla's components and you may learn a surprising detail about beaver anatomy: The scent glands in a beaver's castor sac, which is located adjacent to a beaver's anus, are milked to produce a substance called castoreum. Castoreum, despite its origin in the anal glands, emits a pleasant vanilla scent and has been historically used to infuse foods with a vanilla-like flavor.

Does this mean imitation vanilla flavoring contains beaver castoreum? Not necessarily. Few vanilla flavorings sold in the United States today contain "essence of beaver." And even if they did, it would be OK with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).


As a food additive, the FDA gives castoreum a "generally recognized as safe" classification, which means manufacturers that do use castoreum have the option to list it as a "natural ingredient," rather than by name or by its origin in the anal glands.

Imitation vanilla flavoring is made from vanillin, a substance synthesized from another compound called guaiacol, one of three chemicals found in creosote. Yum.
Eric Glenn/Shutterstock

The more likely reason that beaver castoreum doesn't make a significant appearance in vanilla flavorings is that, like pure vanilla, castoreum is rather rare and expensive.

As flavor chemist Gary Reineccius told NPR's The Salt, "In the flavor industry, you need tons and tons of material to work with. It's not like you can grow fields of beavers to harvest. There aren't very many of them. So it ends up being a very expensive product — and not very popular with food companies."

The annual amount of castoreum used in the manufacture of food or other products manufactured for use by humans is less than 300 pounds (136 kilograms), with most of the castoreum going to the perfume industry.

It turns out vanilla flavoring is less beaver butt and more laboratory labor. So before you spit out that vanilla latte — or stop ordering it altogether — consider the positively bland origins of the vanillin powering that imitation vanilla.