Flavor Investigator: Vanilla

Vanilla universally is a popular fragrance and flavour around the world. It has found its way in just about any dessert including ice creams, cookies and cakes.  However, in many cases vanilla does not act as a standalone flavour. Instead, it is also used to enhance the perception of sweetness in other flavours such as chocolate, coffee, fruits and nuts. This is ideal in the food industry as it provides a sense of sweetness without the addition of the sugar.

Vanilla beans are extracted from the epiphytic orchids. The seeds from this plant are fermented and cured to produce flavouring. They are natively grown in Mexico but now can be additionally grown in Tahiti, Madagascar and Indonesia.

Pods tend to provide the purest flavour but vanilla extracts, powders and seedy pastes are available too. Natural vanilla is expensive due to the strenuous process that natural vanilla entails.  Vanilla beans can only be obtained from hand-pollinated flowering orchids in a handful of tropical areas.

Vanilla Flavour

Natural vanilla extract differs based on the region of where it is grown. This is due to factors such as soil, climate and production. Tahitian vanilla is highly prized for its fruity, spicy character described as some as specifically redolent cherry and anise. Madagascan vanilla is the type we are most familiar with and has a sweet, perfumed aroma with a woody or smoky flavour. Mexican vanilla is spicier, richer and earthier.

Americans prefer sweetness in their foods and beverages, making them the largest consumers of vanilla beans.  As a result, relatively high concentrations of vanilla extract are used in product formulation.


Vanilla extract is obtained by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol to afford vanillin and other minor components that may be used in cooking and baking. Vanillin is the compound which produces the identifiable “vanilla” flavour.  It is a phenolic aldehyde with the chemical formula C8H8O3. It is naturally found in nature but due to processing it is expensive.

Instead, a synthetic version be easily synthesized in a laboratory as multiple different productions paths are available.  For example, vanillin may be extracted from clove oil, a waste material from the paper and wood-pulp industry and petrochemical products. However, there are many options available such as biosynthesis or chemical synthesis. It is estimated that up to 95% of vanilla flavour used is synthetic vanillin.

The chemical structure for vanillin

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Products in which Vanillin is Used

Vanilla Substitutes

Ethyl Vanillin

A more expensive substitute for vanillin is ethyl vanillin, a synthetic compound not found in nature. It’s structure is similar to vanillin but has an extra carbon atom.  As a result, it has more desirable qualities such as increased flavour potency. It is considered to be 2-4 times more flavourful than vanillin itself. This is not surprising that in a blind taste test tasters preferred this artificial vanilla flavour in desserts such as cookies.  It is found to have an odour of sweet, creamy, vanilla and caramellic.

Ethyl vanillin is used instead of natural vanilla because of cost factors. Synthetic versions of chemicals tend to be more cost effective than traditional natural flavours.  Companies which are looking to produce food products which are not required to be healthy and natural should look in the direction of synthetic vanilla compounds. Furthermore, ethyl vanillin is found on the FDAs list of Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) food additives that are generally recognized as safe.

The chemical structure of ethyl vanillin


Potential Uses to Combine Ethyl Vanillin with other Flavours:

  • Apple
  • Banana
  • Imitation Caramel
  • Cherry
  • Maple Flavour
  • Raspberry





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