The farmers move quickly through snaking vines, seeking out the pale, waxy flowers that bloom just one morning each year. They use thin, pointed sticks to lift the delicate membrane that separates the male and female parts of the flower. With thumb and forefinger, they push the segments into each other to ensure pollination.
If the union is successful, “the thick green base of the flower swells almost immediately,” as food writer Sarah Lohman writes in her book Eight Flavors. “The swollen base matures into a green fingerlike seedpod—a fruit—that ripens yellow and eventually splits at the end.”
To wait too long or to damage the plant during pollination is to lose a precious flower that could have matured into a pod. That’s a costly mistake for what has become one of the most beloved, lucrative spices in existence: vanilla. Consumers’ insatiable appetite for this fragrant spice means that an estimated 18,000 products on the market contain vanilla flavor today, with prices for natural vanilla hovering around $300 per pound.
The work of hand pollination is painstaking, but not new. Long before Europeans took to vanilla's taste, the creeping vine grew wild in tropical forests throughout Mesoamerica. While the Totonac people of modern-day Veracruz, Mexico, are credited as the earliest growers of vanilla, the oldest reports of vanilla usage come from the pre-Columbian Maya. The Maya used vanilla in a beverage made with cacao and other spices. After conquering the Totonacan empire, the Aztecs followed suit, adding vanilla to a beverage consumed by nobility and known as chocolatl.
The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519 brought the fragrant flower—and its companion, cacao—to Europe. Vanilla was cultivated in botanical gardens in France and England, but never offered up its glorious seeds. Growers couldn’t understand why until centuries later when, in 1836, Belgian horticulturist Charles Morren reported that vanilla’s natural pollinator was the Melipona bee, an insect that didn’t live in Europe. (A recent study, however, suggests that Euglossine bees may actually be the orchid’s primary pollinator.)
Five years later, on the island of Réunion, a 39-mile long volcanic hotspot in the Indian Ocean, everything changed. In 1841, an enslaved boy on the island named Edmond Albius developed the painstaking yet effective hand-pollination method for vanilla that is still in use today, which involves exposing and mating the flower’s male and female parts. His technique spread from Réunion to Madagascar and other neighboring islands, and eventually worked its way back to Mexico as a way to augment the vanilla harvest pollinated by bees.
This proliferation helped whet the world’s appetite for vanilla. The spice quickly found its way into cakes and ice cream, perfumes and medicines, and was valued for its intoxicating flavor and aroma. But despite growing demand and a robust crop, the tremendous amount of time and energy that went into cultivation and processing affected farmers’ ability to supply the market—and continues to do so today. Nearly all of the vanilla produced commercially today is hand-pollinated.
“Vanilla requires a fair amount of skill to grow,” explains Tim McCollum, co-founder of Madécasse, a direct-trade chocolate and vanilla company. “You can’t just put seed in the ground, tend to it and expect it to produce a yield. Hand pollination is a learned skill. Many farmers have been growing vanilla for three to four generations. Smallholder farmers … have an absolute sixth sense as to when the orchids will bloom.”
Moreover, the vanilla aromas and flavors we know and love don’t reveal themselves until the crop is cured and dried. So it’s equally important to know to manage the plants once they bear fruit. After harvesting, McCollum explains, vanilla beans are sorted and graded. They're then blanched in hot water to halt fermentation and placed in large containers to sweat for 36 to 48 hours. “It’s when the beans start to change from green to brown, and start to develop aroma,” he says.
From there, the beans undergo alternating periods of sun drying during the day and sweating at night, a journey that lasts between five and 15 days and ends with a period of slow drying. “This usually occurs indoors, in a well-ventilated room where beans are placed on racks,” McCollum says. “It can take up to 30 days, depending on the grade.” The entire process—from growing and pollinating to drying, curing and preparing for export—takes around one year.
About 5-7 pounds of green vanilla beans are needed to produce one pound of processed vanilla—yet another reason why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron.
But the reality is that very little of the vanilla we consume comes from those precious pods. Today, most of what we eat is actually artificial vanilla flavoring. As Iain Fraser, a professor of agri-environmental economics at the University of Kent, recently wrote in The Conversation, less than 1 percent of the total global market in vanilla flavor is actually sourced from vanilla beans.
In the late 19th century, scientists figured out how to derive vanillin—the dominant compound that gives vanilla its signature aroma—from less expensive sources. These included eugenol (a chemical compound found in clove oil) and lignin, which is found in plants, wood pulp and even cow feces. Today, about 85 percent of vanillin comes from guaiacol that’s synthesized from petrochemicals. This isn’t something many of us realize, because labeling can be confusing.
In short, vanilla is the plant. Vanillin is one of up to 250 chemical compounds that make up the flavor we know as vanilla. The Food and Drug Administration broadly defines “natural flavors” as those derived from “a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material … whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Artificial flavoring, on the other hand, is defined as being derived from substances outside of those parameters—even if the chemical composition of the two products are similar.
“Imitation vanillin or artificial vanilla extract are essentially the same compounds as from the vanilla bean,” explains food scientist Anneline Padayachee. “But they are extracted from different by-products.” So what's the distinction? “There is a distinct difference ... when used in ice cream,” Padayachee says. “Real extract is thicker and darker in color, and speckled with seed fragments. Vanillin produced naturally in the bean varies from place to place which results in different flavor profiles. Imitation vanillin extracted from lignin or guaiacol is very standard, rather than distinct.”
She adds that, when used in cookies and cakes, professional taste panelists have not been able to determine a difference in flavor between real and artificial vanilla because many ancillary flavor compounds diminish when heated.
Right now, this demand for inexpensive vanilla flavoring comes with an environmental cost. According to research in the American Chemical Society's journal Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research, the production of these compounds “creates a stream of wastewater that requires treatment before it can be released into surface water … catalysts currently used in the manufacturing of vanillin are polluting and can only be used one time.” In response, the authors have developed a new catalyst that separates out the vanillin but removes the polluting step. This catalyst could theoretically be re-used and, they hope, lead to more environmentally-friendly ways of manufacturing the alluring compound.
That synthetic vanillin will be badly needed, because prices for real vanilla are subject to more than just consumer whims. On March 7, 2017, Cyclone Enawo struck Madagascar, the country where the majority of the world’s vanilla is grown. The devastating storm was the third-biggest cyclone on record, and hit a country already grappling with years of drought. Two of the largest vanilla-producing regions in Madagascar—Antalaha and Sambava—were directly impacted.
According to a March 8 market report from vanilla supplier Cook Flavoring Company, the preliminary field reports are “shocking.” “They said most of the crop (90-100 percent) in Antalaha is destroyed and 80 percent of the crop in Sambava. … there is no doubt that the cyclone will have severe negative impact on the vanilla market," according to the report.
Josephine Lochhead, the company's president, predicts the losses could lead to “hurricane vanilla” that is harvested prematurely. “The quality of this vanilla will be very poor," she writes. "It’s the equivalent to harvesting California wine grapes in May instead of September. All flavor in the vanilla bean is developed in its last 3-4 months on the vine … The vanilla bean may be at full weight and size at 5 months, but the last 4 months are the most critical because the bean is ripening and developing its flavor components.”
This price volatility is historic, says Patricia Rain, culinary historian and owner of The Vanilla Company. In part, it is the result of cycles of tropical storms—something that may change in unpredictable ways due to climate change.
Vanilla beans start to ferment as soon as they are harvested, so there is an urgent need for farmers to find buyers for their beans. Smaller producers typically sell green beans to middlemen who collate larger amounts of beans and sell them to centralized curing facilities or directly to the curing facilities themselves. However, as there is no set market price for green beans, these farmers have limited options when it comes to negotiating for a higher price. “The money starts to pick up,” Rain says, ”when it reaches those who cure and dry the beans. It goes through many more sets of hands.”
Those hands extend from traders who ship the beans to stores that stock them. When prices for cured beans drop due to price speculation or an increased global supply, Rain explains, “farmers tear up crops. They can’t afford to keep growing vanilla when prices stay so low." In early 2005, the prices for green beans dropped to $20 a kilo (roughly $10 per pound) and remained there until 2014. The 2014 price increase was built on speculation that, due to poor pollination, the vanilla harvest would be small.
David van der Walde, director and CEO of Canadian vanilla importer Aust & Hachmann, maintains that the losses from Cyclone Enawo will have an impact, but that a storm of this magnitude can only destroy so much. “Only 20 to 30 percent of the crop will be affected," he says. "Vines will be destroyed and some shocked by the wind, but a big storm can only destroy part of the crop.” Even before the cyclone, van der Walde stresses, there was a lot of theft and premature harvesting that affected the quality of the crop.
Despite these challenges, van der Walde believes the greatest threat to vanilla extends beyond economic and environmental factors to consumers’ insatiable hunger for the crop. As Lohman explains in Eight Flavors, the United States is the world’s largest importer of vanilla: “Every American consumes about 5.4 grams of vanilla annually—a little over 2 vanilla beans every year. It doesn’t seem like much per person, but it adds up to over 638 million beans consumed in the United States each year.”
So is the answer to move away from real vanilla, and toward more environmentally friendly ways of scaling up production of artificial vanilla? Assuming that we consumers are content with a simple vanilla flavor, perhaps. But we will undoubtedly lose something in the process.
The diverse flavors Padayachee describes are a reflection of the genetics of the vanilla bean as well as the places in which it is grown. Bourbon Vanilla—named for the area where hand-pollination was developed—is known for a sweet, rum-like flavor, while Tahitian Vanilla displays floral qualities. Due to drying techniques, Indonesian Vanilla—which comprises about 25 percent of the global supply, according to van der Walde—often displays smoky characteristics, while Mexican Vanilla—which comprises less than 5 percent—reveals spicy and woody notes.
In reaching for the real thing, we also support the farmers who carefully nurture, pollinate and harvest the crop. In Madagascar, home to 60-80 percent of vanilla, nearly 70 percent of the population is impoverished and, now, grappling with the impacts of the Cyclone. As with cocoa, economic projections—and environmental challenges—have a dramatic impact on the lives of these farmers.
So how do get the most value for the money we invest? Madécasse’s McCollum says it’s by assessing the vanilla bean before our purchase. “It’s a good idea to shake the jar before buying. If you can hear even the faintest rattle, it means the beans are stale and should not be purchased. You should be able to take a bean, tie it around your finger, and untie it. That’s how supple a vanilla bean should be. In terms of appearance, avoid extraordinarily large beans, as they were likely not cured properly.” But the best way to appreciate the differences, he says, is to taste it.
“Simple recipes are ideal for comparing vanilla flavor—sugar cookies, angel food cake, et cetera," he says. In other words: The trade-off is on our tongues.