The Real Story Behind Artificial Vanilla and Why You Should Always Prefer Pure

Vanilla was once considered to be among the rarest and most expensive flavors that money could buy. Vanilla was a new spice that inspired  thousands of different dishes. It originated in the rainforests on the opposite side of the earth. Today, the essence that is extracted from vanilla can be purchased in any supermarket, health food store, or pharmacy located anywhere in the world. But where does vanilla extract originate from in the first place? How can you tell the difference between genuine vanilla and a cheap imitation?

What is Vanilla?

In order to comprehend vanilla extract, one must first have a fundamental understanding of vanilla. To begin, a vanilla bean is not actually a bean; rather, it is the fruit of orchids that belong to the genus Vanilla. These vanilla orchids can only be found growing in a very specific part of the world, and Madagascar is responsible for an astounding 82% of the world’s production. Hand labor is required at every stage of the labor-intensive harvesting process, from the pollination to the harvesting to the curing (which refers to the transformation of plump green vanilla pods into lean black beans). All of these factors contribute to vanilla’s high price, making it the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.

Since whole vanilla beans are an indulgence, you will want to select the plumpest and freshest ones from those that are offered to you. Look for beans that are still whole and should have a sheen, some fat, and some moisture. Vanilla comes from a variety of countries, including Mexico, French Polynesia, Uganda, China, and Indonesia, as well as Madagascar, which produces approximately half of the world’s crop. However, different varieties of vanilla will have distinctive flavor profiles depending on where they were grown. The incredibly fragrant and ethically harvested products from Heilala Vanilla, which originate in the Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific, are a huge hit in the kitchen where we do our product testing.

Is it Hard to Grow Vanilla?

Vanilla is a crop that, to say the least, can be unpredictable. Vanilla farms consist of thousands of trees, with each tree reserved for a single vanilla vine. It can take a vanilla vine anywhere from three to five years to mature and produce flowers. When it does flower, the vanilla orchid only blooms for a single day, and if they want to continue growing vanilla, they have to pollinate it by hand on that one day.

Taking care of the plant is not the only challenge with vanilla; there are other drawbacks as well. Additionally, a significant amount of time must be put forth. A single 6- to 8-inch pod will grow from a single flower that has been successfully pollinated. As if that weren’t enough, it takes this pod between eight and nine months to ripen sufficiently for harvest.

The Connection Between Beavers and Vanilla Extract

Beavers have sweet-smelling bums. The castor gland, which is situated beneath the beaver’s tail and distressingly close to the anus, is responsible for the production of castoreum, a brown material with a slimy consistency. In the wild, beavers will mark their territory with a substance called castoreum. The goo has a musky aroma comparable to genuine vanilla due to its diet of tree bark.

Because of its unique set of qualities, castoreum is often used as an ingredient in perfumes as well as to amplify the vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry aromas found in foods such as ice cream and yogurt. However, you shouldn’t hurry into your kitchen and throw away all of your vanilla ice cream or extract from the cabinets, nor should you remove all of your vanilla extract from the freezer. Castoreum is used to flavor food less frequently than it once was, but even when it was, the FDA determined that it did not present a threat to people’s health.

As you might expect, the most difficult aspect of preparing castoreum for use in food is harvesting. The procedure is complex and expensive, according to National Geographic. The beaver must first be sedated and the castor gland “milked” to create the fluid. The whole thing sounds disgusting—would you really want to apply castoreum to your food after understanding where it comes from? very unpleasant, especially for the beaver.

There is no longer any basis for supposing that the artificial vanilla extract you purchased at the grocery store contains any castoreum at this point in time. But even if you have an old bottle of vanilla extract tucked away in the back of your cabinets or a frostbitten tub of vanilla ice cream that you’ve never bothered to throw away, there’s no guarantee that the ingredient label will specify that it contains castoreum. This is because castoreum is a chemical compound that can be found in vanilla beans. Since the substance in question comes from an animal, it is possible that it could be called a “natural flavoring.”

Vanilla Flavoring Variations

The best vanilla extract comes from natural vanilla beans grown in Madagascar or another similar region. The flavor is creamy and complex, with notes of smokiness, sweetness, and fragrance. In sweets like ice cream and cupcake topping, where the vanilla taste can really shine through, this extract works wonderfully. An artificial extract is an option if you want to add a little of that creamy sweetness to a dessert like chocolate chip cookies, which already include a variety of other tastes that compliment the vanilla.

Although the history of castoreum is interesting and perhaps even titillating, adding a touch of chemically engineered artificial vanilla extract changes nothing in terms of taste. However, if you are truly so intrigued about the flavor of beaver secretions in baked products, as well as other bizarre cooking facts and recipes, please visit right away.

Vanilla is both a flavor and a crop with a long agricultural history. It is part of a massive global business and, as such, poses numerous sustainability issues. Having said that, there are sustainable companies that offer this expensive spice to those who are interested. It’s probably worth the price in terms of flavor and environmental impact.