Not only is vanilla one of the most expensive spices globally, but it is also one of the most popular, with up to 2300 tons produced annually. Harvested as a seedpod from the intricate vanilla orchid plant, its sweet aroma, and flavor has made it a prevalent ingredient in everything from confectionery, cocktails, ice cream, savory dishes, and drinks, to perfumes and toiletries.
Vanilla spice cultivation is lengthy and complicated. The intricate process takes 3 to 4 years from start to finish. This makes the product pricey and has led to the production of artificial flavorings that are quicker and cheaper to produce.
Although vanilla beans are used to make real vanilla extract, the flavoring or essence bought at general grocery stores may not have any real vanilla in them at all. So where does vanilla flavor come from? Let’s find out.
Where Does Vanilla Extract Come From?
In November 2020, a TikTok video went viral sparking a new rise in interest as to where vanilla flavoring comes from. The video insinuated that the flavoring is a product of beaver secretions, which had many vowing to never sip a vanilla latte again.
Although beavers mark their territory with castoreum, a sweet-smelling vanilla-like substance secreted near their glands, there is no need to put your vanilla milkshake down just yet.
Castoreum is indeed a syrupy, yellow-brown liquid resembling vanilla in both taste and smell. It has been used as a fragrance and as a food additive since the early 1900s. As science and technology developed, new methods of creating synthetic vanilla became more popular.
As a result, castoreum is now rarely used as a food additive, although it is still available for use in fragrances, with a little less than 300 pounds produced annually.
Where Does Artificial Vanilla Come From?
As science has evolved we can now leave the beavers alone. Modern synthetic flavorings are made in laboratories. Chemical components are used to replicate vanillin, the natural substance found in the beans that provides its distinctive aroma and flavor.
Synthetic flavouring is used in most vanilla-flavored products as it is much faster, easier, and cheaper to produce than the beans harvested from orchids over a three to four-year period. Around 18,000 metric tons of synthetic flavoring are produced yearly. You can identify the use of chemical flavorings in products by looking for the words ‘imitation’ or ‘artificial flavoring’ on the label. It may also be referred to as vanilla essence.
Another way synthetic flavouring is produced is by the genetic modification of a fungus that converts sugar into vanillin, which is then used as a flavoring. Since this method involves creating flavoring from an organism, it is referred to as ‘natural flavoring’, although this can be somewhat misleading as it doesn’t come from the natural plant.
How To Tell If It Is Real Vanilla?
Besides products indicating on the labeling that they contain real vanilla, vanilla beans, or vanilla extract, you will be able to identify tiny black specs in the ice cream, yogurt, cookies, or other items where real beans are used.
The natural extract used for baking should have a brown tinge, while the synthetic flavoring will be labeled as ‘essence’ with a caramel color or clear appearance.
Using real vanilla offers a depth of flavor and subtle spice nuances that artificial vanilla products just can’t capture, although they may get pretty close. Considering that the pods are so expensive, you may want to try making your own homemade extract. This way you can get that authentic flavor at a better price, and you know exactly what it is made of.
Yes, vanilla extract and most artificial flavorings are vegan. In the past, flavoring did contain castoreum, but this substance is rarely used today due to the difficulty, and therefore cost, of retrieving it.
Pure extract is made from the beans of the vanilla plant while Mexican vanilla is often made using the beans of a tonka tree which is a completely different shrub belonging to the pea family.
The extract can last indefinitely when stored properly. It is recommended to use it within five years for the best aroma and flavor. Store it in a cool dark place such as your pantry or kitchen cupboard. Don’t freeze or refrigerate it, even after opening.
Castoreum is a sticky brown substance produced by a beaver’s castor sac (between the pelvis and base of the tail) to mark its territory. The substance has a sweet scent which is attributed to the beaver’s diet of leaves and bark.
Although castoreum was more commonly used to make artificial flavoring for human consumption in the past, this practice is very rare today. In fact, the total annual consumption of castoreum in the US is only around 292 pounds which is less than a millionth of a pound per person.
While pure vanilla extract is made from vanilla pods derived through a laborious farming process of orchids, the flavoring is also made artificially through chemical processes. Either way, you can be at peace that there are no beaver secretions in that vanilla latte you’re about to order.
*image by DenysR&NewAfrica/depositphotos