Where does the flavoring agent vanilla come from? Is it sourced from plants?

It is hard to find a list of sweets or desserts that do not profit from the fragrance of vanilla. It is one of the most important ingredients for making any desserts – be it whipping a quick plain cake or baking a batch of your favorite cookies. Vanilla elevates the tastes of cakes and enhances the delicacy of the chocolates. 

However, vanilla extract is not something you can right off from a plant or a pod. From harvesting vanilla pods to taking the time to watch them grow and then carry out curing to get that fragrant aroma of vanilla, it is a painstaking process.  

Vanilla is one of the most sought-after spices and flavoring in the world. It is estimated that to get a pound of processed vanilla, you would need about 5-7 pounds of original green vanilla beans. No wonder it is quite expensive! 


The word vanilla belongs to a Spanish word, “Vaina” – implying to a pod. This is why vanilla is also called vanilla bean or pod. Vanilla pods are long and black with shriveled appearance. Though vanilla pods are native to Mexico, they are now grown widely in the tropical areas all across the world. 

Used in earlier times to flavor the chocolate beverages of the Aztecs of Mexico, vanilla is extracted from the beans of a tropical vine which attaches its little rootless stem to trees. Interestingly, fresh vanilla beans have no aroma, though they contain the basic components of the chemical vanillin, which ultimately provides the characteristic flavor associated with vanilla. Vanillin is only one of about 250 chemical compounds that make up a vanilla plant. 

Among the four fundamental cultivars of vanilla, the Bourbon Vanilla tastes like sweet rum and is well-known for its aroma. Tahitian Vanilla is another type of vanilla cultivar that presents qualities similar to that of flowers. Other than these two, the Indonesian vanilla is the one that makes up about 25% of the global vanilla supply. 

To derive this extract, the beans have to be cured. Firstly, the vanilla pods are out in hot water to be blanched. This step stops the living plant tissues from any further process. Then the time-honored method to expose the harvested beans to sunshine and keeping them in sweat-boxes at night is carried out. The process, lasting about ten days, brings about fermentation in the beans, and they become chocolate brown. This change in color is related to the release of enzymes in pod known as vanillin. 

The curing leads to the formation of the volatile oil vanillin. The beans are then dried for about four months. The proportion of vanillin is seldom more than 2%, but it is highly concentrated. After the dried beans are crushed, the vanillin is extracted by alcohol. 

The eventual vanilla flavoring is 35% ethyl alcohol and is used in a variety of sweet foods and beverages such as ice-cream, milk-shakes, chocolate, and cakes.

Worldwide, it is the most preferred flavoring, and a large quantity of vanilla is made nowadays from commercially synthesized vanillin. The need to produce synthetic vanillin arose because the process of obtaining natural vanillin is extremely lengthy and onerous. Artificial vanillin is widely prepared these days from guaiacol or lignin. 

Final Verdict

If you are adamant about the authenticity of all the ingredients in your dessert, then you can try making your vanilla extract at home by purchasing natural vanilla beans and pods. You can get them from a store near you. To ensure that you get a fresh batch of vanilla beans, always buy sealed packets of vanilla beans. Make a quick vanilla extract for your next baking project by adding vanilla beans or pods into caramelized sugar and water. 

Additional reading:

Vanillin (Wikipedia)
Vanilla (Wikipedia)

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