Here are some of the questions that I’m most frequently asked about vanilla. These are the short answers. Throughout the site you will find more detailed answers to these and other questions you may have.
Q. What is vanilla?
A. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the orchid family, which is the largest family of flowering plants in the world, with over 35,000 species worldwide.
Q. Why is vanilla so expensive?
A. Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world. It takes between 18 months and three years from planting a cutting of the orchid vine till the plant produces orchids. The orchids bloom and die within a few hours unless they are pollinated by hand. The beans (which are actually seed-pods) must stay on the vine for nine months before being harvested. The beans then go through a curing, drying, and resting process for several months. Each vanilla bean is handled hundreds of times before it’s ready to use!
Q. Where does vanilla come from?
A. Originally vanilla came from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. It’s a fruit of the Americas. Now it grows in tropical countries all over the world.
Q. Can we grow vanilla in the United States?
A. That depends on where you live. Vanilla thrives between 10 and 20 degrees either side of the Equator. So vanilla can be grown in Puerto Rico, South Florida, and Hawaii. Vanilla can also be grown in greenhouses, but it’s tricky to get the vines to flower and fruit. It’s definitely a tropical orchid and it doesn’t do well in temperatures below 50 degrees.
Q. Does Mexico still grow vanilla?
A. Yes, though Mexico produces much less vanilla than the other major vanilla-producing countries.
Q. Why are Mexican and Caribbean vanillas so much cheaper than vanillas from other places?
A. Nearly all the liquid vanilla from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean countries is synthetic. Never mind what the labels say. The fact is that label laws are non-existent or aren’t enforced. These are poor countries taking advantage of Mexico’s early reputation as the producer of the best vanilla in the world. Unless the bottle costs over $20.00 a quart and has 35% alcohol, it is not pure vanilla extract. There is more information about this in other areas of the site.
Q. Is vanilla from Mexico and the Caribbean dangerous?
A. Coumarin, which was usually found in vanilla from Mexico and the Caribbean countries until recently can be dangerous in large quantities as it has been found to cause liver cancer in laboratory animals. Coumarin has been banned in the United States since the early 1950s. Much of the so-called vanilla extract from Mexico no longer has coumarin in it. It may, however, have red dyes which are banned for use in the United States.
Q. Where is most of the world’s vanilla grown?
A. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla worldwide, followed by Indonesia. Reunion and the Comoro Islands were, until recently, big producers as well. Vanilla is also grown in many other tropical countries, such as Papua, New Guinea, India, Fiji, Tonga, China, and Uganda. Tahiti, which has been the primary source of Tahitian vanilla, now produces only a small quantity of vanilla.
Q. Is vanilla fattening?
A. Vanilla is a flavor and therefore doesn’t have many calories. Unlike chocolate which is both a flavor and a food, only the extracted flavor of vanilla is used. More important is whether the food or beverage that is flavored with vanilla is fattening or not. If it’s a low-fat, low-sugar food, it probably isn’t fattening; if it’s a rich ice cream, it could be fattening. Because vanilla is such a big flavor, it’s very helpful to make low-fat food taste better. Studies have shown that the fragrance of vanilla actually helps to lower cravings for high-fat foods. So, if you want to lose weight, carry a vanilla bean with you and smell it’s intoxicating fragrance to help you keep from eating that extra chocolate bar or piece of pie.
Q. What are the equivalents for a vanilla bean versus vanilla extract?
A. It’s a little tricky determining the equivalent of a vanilla bean to extract. The bean offers a fuller flavor but the extract is a little stronger. In general, 1/2 vanilla bean is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Q. Why is vanilla so unique?
A. Vanilla has over 250 organic components that comprise its distinctive flavor and fragrance. Although scientists have been trying to genetically clone and reproduce vanilla in a laboratory environment for the past 25 years, they haven’t been able to capture the elusive and distinctive qualities that make it so very popular.
Q. Isn’t synthetic vanilla just as good?
A. Synthetic vanilla contains only one organic component – vanillin – the flavor and fragrance that we most associate with vanilla. Because pure vanilla contains so many other flavor and fragrance components, it has a much richer smell and taste than vanillin does by itself. Synthetic vanillin just doesn’t compare with the “real deal.”
Q. Is Bourbon Vanilla made from Bourbon?
A. No. Vanilla contains at least 35% alcohol, but it’s ethyl alcohol, not that famous whiskey from Kentucky. The name Bourbon comes from the period when the island of Reunion was ruled by the Bourbon kings of France.
Q. Why does vanilla contain so much alcohol?
A. Alcohol is the most efficient agent for extracting the flavor from the beans. Although most of the alcohol burns off in cooked foods, the flavor remains intact as the alcohol is simply the carrier for the flavor.
Q. Are there non-alcoholic vanilla extracts?
A. Yes and no. There are non-alcoholic vanillas but the FDA requires that they not be labeled Pure Vanilla Extract as they don’t contain alcohol. They are usually called Pure Natural Vanilla, are made in a glycerin base and contain as much vanilla as extracts. They provide a reasonable non-alcoholic solution for flavoring foods and beverages.
Q. What’s Tahitian Vanilla?
A. Tahitian vanilla was originally Vanilla planifolia stock that was taken to Tahiti, but it mutated into an entirely different type of vanilla, and is now recognized as a different species, Vanilla tahitensis. It is fatter, moister, and sweeter, with less natural vanillin and more heliotropin than other vanillas. As a result, it’s very fruity and floral. Unfortunately, Tahitians have replaced much of their vanilla with other crops so Tahitian vanilla has become very expensive.
Q. What is French Vanilla?
A. French vanilla is not a type of vanilla. It is a term used to describe an egg-custard base for ice cream. However, because it sounds exotic or romantic – especially in the perfume industry – it’s often used to describe perfumes, candles and other specialty products.
Q. Is there a difference in flavor between Tahitian, Bourbon and Mexican vanilla?
A. There’s a significant difference between Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon and Mexican vanillas because they’re different species, but there’s also a difference between the same species of vanilla depending upon where it’s grown. Vanilla’s flavors are affected by rain, soil, amount of sun, etc. in the same way as grape varietals are different when they are planted in different locations. While most of us wouldn’t be aware of a perceptible difference of vanilla grown 20 miles apart, some vanilla specialists can detect the difference.
Q. Does vanilla have any alleged medicinal value?
A. Since early times the indigenous people who cultivated vanilla have used it as medicine. They used it to calm the stomach, to treat asthma, congestion, and coughs, and even as a salve for syphilis. Up until the early years of the 20th century vanilla was used in the pharmacy to calm upset stomachs. In fact, Coca Cola syrup was often used as a stomach sedative, and later, Coke was substituted for calming the effects of nausea. The reason? Coca Cola contains a large percentage of vanilla!
Q. Does vanilla have any value in aromatherapy?
A. You bet! It calms the nerves and soothes the spirit. Sloan Kettering hospital pioneered experiments with fragrances to soothe patients going through MRI testing. They found that heliotropin – a major component in vanilla – helped patients endure the claustrophobic effects of MRIs so well that they use it routinely now and many other hospitals have also incorporated it into their MRI treatments as well.
Q. Is vanilla an aphrodisiac?
A. Legend has it that it is! In Mesoamerica, only royalty was served beverages with vanilla because they felt only they deserved the value of its aphrodisiac quality. Documents from the 18th and 19th century make reference to vanilla as an aphrodisiac for men, especially when it was made into a tincture. And tests conducted in the 1990s at the Institute for Smell and Taste in Chicago found that the aroma was a powerful stimulant to men. “The proof is in the pudding,” as they say; try wearing some vanilla perfume or serve a luscious dessert laced with the extract and see how the evening turns out!
Q. Do your vanillas contain sugar? If so, how much?
A. Vanilla is naturally sweet and really doesn’t need sugar. However, when it was made at the apothecary shops it was more like a tincture, and contained a lot of sugar. Some companies use a lot of sugar in their vanillas while others don’t. Some of the vanilla extracts I sell have a very small percentage of sugar in them to help stabilize the vanilla, but the quantity is so small it will not cause a reaction for those who use the extract. By the way, the FDA requires that all ingredients be listed on the label, but it isn’t necessary to list the quantity of each ingredient. Consequently, it can be difficult to determine how much sugar is in vanilla unless you ask the manufacturer.
Q. I love the flavor of vanilla, but I’m on a diet and don’t want to use it in fattening foods. Any suggestions?
A. Vanilla is perfect for adding spice to otherwise bland or flavorless fare. It accentuates foods and beverages and adds a natural sweetness as well. It’s perfect for brightening insipid protein drinks, enlivens low- and non- fat foods, and is a great adjunct to lots of savory foods too. Be sure to check out the recipe directory for low-fat vanilla-flavored foods!
Q. What’s the best way to store vanilla extract and beans?
A. Extracts should be kept in a cool, dark place as light can affect it. A cupboard that’s away from the heat of the oven would be fine. Vanilla beans also should be kept in a cool dark place, but they should also be kept dry so that they don’t mold. Storing them in a small jar or in plastic is usually fine, but if you live in a humid climate you may want to wrap them in waxed paper. Do not refrigerate either the extract or beans as this can damage the extract and cause the beans to crystallize or dry.
Q. My vanilla beans have gotten very dry. Are they any good?
A. Yes. When the beans are soaked in liquid they will plump up again. For instance, if you’re making custard, warm them in the milk or cream and they will work fine. Another option is to grind the beans and use the ground beans to flavor sugar, coffee, tea, or a dessert. You can also put dried beans in the sugar jar and they will absorb some of the moisture of the sugar and regain some of their moisture.
Q. How long does extract remain good?
A. Vanilla extract will last several years as long as it’s not exposed to bright light or temperature extremes. Hopefully you’ll use it more quickly than that as it brings such good flavor to foods and beverages!
Q. Why should people buy organic vanilla?
A.Actually, a lot of vanilla worldwide is organically grown but it isn’t certified because the growers don’t have the money to pay for the annual certification fees. There are a couple of compelling reasons to buy organic when possible. First, the continued use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides slowly erode the quality of the soil. Tropical soils are not traditionally deep, nutrient-rich soils. They typically have a small amount of topsoil, which is easily eroded during heavy rainstorms. Because so much tropical soil has been degraded due to over-farming, slash and burn techniques, and clear-cutting of tropical forests, the soil has continually been compromised. The soils are no longer mineral-rich and cannot sustain a high level of health for the people who eat the crops grown in compromised soil.
Organic gardening includes feeding the soil with nutrient-rich humus and compost. This, in turn, makes for healthier plants that can produce flowers and fruits in roughly half the time that it takes to grow in traditional tropical soils. The cycle in organic farming supports the soil and produces better products. By purchasing organically-grown products, we are supporting a win-win situation for the land, the growers, and the consumers.
Q. I was recently given a bottle of vanilla by someone who had just returned from Haiti. The material is thick like a light syrup and dark. I was told it was vanilla concentrate. What can you tell me about it?
A. This is synthetic vanillin, made from a coal tar base. As it may contain ingredients that we’ve banned in the United States, my suggestion is to throw it away.