Everything you never wanted to know about vanilla

The vanilla bean demand dilemma
Vanilla scent and flavoring from cow poo
Vanilla flavor from beaver bums
Other artificial vanilla extracts
Food for thought
Does real vanilla extract taste better?
How to make your own vanilla extract!

As someone who loves to bake, I am a huge fan of vanilla. We bakers can buy artificial vanilla extract, natural vanilla extract, or we can make our own extract (recipe below)! Plus there are tons of vanilla flavored and scented products out there. However, the majority of these tasty and scented products do not actually use real vanilla extract. When I write “real vanilla extract”, I mean the flavor or scent extracted from the vanilla bean itself. It’s important to specify because (believe it or not!) naturally derived vanilla extract may not necessarily come from a vanilla bean! Why? This brings me to the first thing you never wanted to know about vanilla:

1. The vanilla bean demand dilemma

vanillinThe key chemical compound in vanilla that gives it that lovely vanilla flavor is vanillin. Unfortunately, it’s tough for vanilla bean supply to meet demands (NYT 2002Huffington Post 2012), which is partly responsible for the high costs of natural vanilla. The production process of vanilla beans takes about 5-6 years, plus they have to pollinated by hand, and these cute little fruits (yes, they’re actually a fruit!) have to be hand-picked! Whew! After all of that, of course these beans are expensive, and the high costs and high demand provide a strong argument for  alternative sources of one of our favorite scents and flavors.
So where do these vanilla alternatives come from? Here are the most interesting sources:

2. Vanilla scent and flavoring from cow poo

Vanillin use for fragrance or flavoring can be produced from the lignin in cow dung! Yes, you read that correctly. COW POO! In fact the Japanese researcher, Mayu Yamamoto, won an Ig Nobel prize in chemistry for this research in 2007. This process may sound like an unappealing source, but it’s important to consider that if this source of vanillin becomes widespread, it will decrease greenhouse gas emissions released by cow poo. As both a vegan and an environmental chemist I am ta bit torn by this, but I am going to lean towards the greenhouse gas reduction. After all, anything that can positively impact our environment will also positively impact other animals.

3. Vanilla flavor from beaver bums

This one is probably my favorite, or least favorite, depending on how I look at it. Vanilla flavors can come from castoreum. Most popular articles define castoreum as the goo released from the castor sacs (similar to anal glands) of a beaver. Of course it’s a bit more than that. Castoreum is extracted not only from the secreted goo, but from the dried castor sacs themselves! Here’s a research article on castoreum if you’re interested. This not so appetizing sounding stuff is not only used for vanilla flavoring but is used to enhance raspberry and strawberry flavors as well. Vegans may be interested to know that this extract is labelled as “natural flavoring” in most ingredients lists. 

Other artificial vanilla extracts

ligninMost artificial vanillin comes from two sources: 

  • lignin
  • guaiacol






Lignin is an important cellular component in plants, and it is typically chemically derived from wood and paper pulp industries. As I mentioned earlier, it’s also in cow poo, which makes sense given their plant-based diet. Guaiacol is a byproduct when the lignin in wood is burned. There seems to be a lot of misleading information about guaicol in a lot of food articles. Yes, it is a petroleum precursor, but it is still a natural product and is not a petroleum byproduct.

Vanillin can also be derived from:

  •  glycosides in pine sap, which was the first method of vanillin extraction discovered back in 1874
  • eugenol, which is an essential oil extract of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, basil and bay leaves 

 Food for thought

Now don’t you wish that ingredients were listed like this? I do want to point out that the labeling of vanilla as “artificial” or “natural” is very confusing depending on the laws of your country and the wordplay of the product marketing. If you’re primarily concerned about it being “artificial” or “natural” then I highly recommend you read this article by yours truly. If you are vegan and are concerned about where it comes from then you should contact the manufacturer. You should also sign this petition for a much improved ingredient labeling like the mentioned above!

Does real vanilla extract taste better?

A number of people have mentioned to me that real vanilla extract from vanilla beans tastes better than its alternatives, so I thought I would add this section. It’s quite possible that the reason real vanilla extract tastes better is because it contains MANY other chemical compounds (e.g. vanillic acid and hydroxybenzoic acid)  that produce flavor in addition to vanillin. It’s just that vanillin is the main compound found in vanilla bean extracts. Here’s a research article comparing these flavor compounds in different beans if you’re interested.

 How to make your own vanilla extract!

There’s a lot of interesting grossness in this post, so here’s something nice. A recipe for a most delicious real vanilla extract! Thanks to my roommate, Chris Rowlinson, for sharing this recipe with us!

 vanilla extract recipe


Like the cow, beaver and Robonilla (on Facebook) illustrations? Check out Chemicals Are Your Friend’s house artist, Mike Ellis and his homepage!

Illustrations are © Chemicals Are Your Friends

Interested in more on the history and chemistry of vanillin? Check out this Royal Society of Chemistry podcast and transcript.

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