This week’s posts will be dedicated to the plants featured in the dishes you’ll have around your Thanksgiving table.
To start it off, let’s discuss the most ubiquitous of flavorings- vanilla. It’s used as the basal flavoring in virtually all desserts. It has become so ordinary that vanilla is synonymous with plain. Yet, its origins are more exotic than you think.
The vanilla flavoring comes from a Mexican orchid species called Vanilla planifolia. The flowers must be pollinated to make the vanilla-flavored fruit pods. This may not sound like much of a problem since flowers are pollinated day in and day out. However, in the case of V. planifolia the yellow blooms last only a day and they must be pollinated in the morning on the day they bloom. In the wild the flowers are pollinated by a small stingless bee, but there’s only about a 1% chance of this happening. Once pollination occurs, it takes another 5 months for the fruit pods to ripen enough for harvesting. At that point, they still don’t have their characteristic scent, but must be fermented and aged for even more months post-harvest. Needless to say commercial cultivation is labor intensive because relying on bees for pollination just doesn’t cut it. To obtain vanilla pods for natural vanilla extract, the orchids are hand-pollinated on the morning they open. Yes, for all the vanilla flavoring in that small bottle of natural extract, workers’ deft hands were responsible for pollinating each flower. So it should come as no surprise that natural vanilla extract is one of the most expensive flavors in the grocery store.*
How do we have such plentiful and cheap ice cream and vanilla-flavored products? Well, the demand for vanilla flavoring has long exceeded the production of natural extract. Fortunately, chemistry has come to the rescue. While natural vanilla extracts are comprised of an array of flavor chemicals, the main flavor component is vanillin. This simple phenolic compound can be readily synthesized in the lab for pennies on the dollar compared to the natural stuff. The starting material for synthetic or artificial vanillin is another plant product- lignin. Lignin is the unusable by-product of the paper-manufacturing process. It can also be derived from glycosides in pine tree sap. Most recently, the majority of artificial vanillin comes from guaiacol, a petroleum product. The bulk of vanillin (75%) goes to the ice cream and chocolate industries, but vanillin is also used in perfumes, cleaning products, and as the starting material for other chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Of course, when it comes to vanilla flavorings it’s not all tropical orchids and organic synthesis. There is another natural flavoring alternative on the market, but(t) the source may surprise you. Beaver castoreum contains flavor compounds similar to vanilla and is used in food flavoring and perfumes. In case you are wondering what part of a beaver castoreum is and you are chanting “Please don’t be something gross. Please don’t be something gross. Please don’t be something gross.” I am sorry to break it to you, butt it’s the chemical secretions of a beaver’s backside used for marking their territories. Remember they eat lots of woody pulp with lignin that can be used as a biochemical starting point. Don’t be too worried about how much you may be consuming, harvesting beaver secretions is also a labor intensive process that is uncomfortable for both beavers and harvesters. It’s less than 300 pounds per year compared with the 1,800 tons of natural vanillin and ~10,000 tons of synthetic vanillin produced annually.
So when the next dessert or baking recipe you make calls for the typical 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, keep in mind the exotic sources you have just measured in your spoon, and you won’t use the term plain vanilla ever again.
*Second only to saffron in price.