Vanilla: An Affordable Flavoring Ingredient

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and the flavors derived from its bean have long been used in many foods and beverages. Flavor profiles of vanilla are determined by bean species, grade, cultivation techniques, storage methods, and extraction and curing processes. Its presence in kitchen pantries across America and elsewhere is practically expected.

The demand for vanilla began to exceed available supplies in the 1990s, and prices rose dramatically. Part of the problem, according to Rick Brownell, vice president of vanilla products for Virginia Dare, was the relatively small size of the vanilla market, which made it vulnerable to speculation. Other factors that fueled the price increases include the maturation rate of the vanilla vine and uncertainty over crop harvests. Vanilla vines produce the valued beans for many years but take about four years to reach full production. As prices peaked, cultivation increased in areas where it was long a cash crop, and new producers entered the market.

Madagascar, an island nation off the coast of Africa, is a major supplier and is especially known as a source for Bourbon vanilla. Strife-torn Uganda, which first began producing vanilla in the 1950s, has recently restarted production. The quality is similar to Bourbon vanilla.

Indonesia, a highly diversified industrialized nation, became a major producer of vanilla beans in the 1980s, and growers use shortcuts to traditional cultivation and curing processes. Papua New Guinea is a remote and largely undeveloped nation in the Pacific Rim that is home to more than 3,000 species of orchids. Vanilla production was unheard of there four years ago, but now it flourishes. Other emerging producers include Costa Rica, China, India and Hawaii.

Now that the vines planted during the price peak have reached maturity, consumers are reaping the benefits. Brownell expects the upshot of all these new vanilla sources will be interesting new flavor profiles and price stability.

Also, he says he believes the vanilla crisis is unlikely to recur since production has increased in both traditional and new origins. Vines remain productive for many years, important since vanilla applications include everything from baby foods to baked goods, beverages, confections, frozen foods, sauces and savory foods and even tobacco.

“Beyond Plain Vanilla: New Options for Food and Beverage Developers,” Rick Brownell, Virginia Dare,

—Summary by Elizabeth Mannie, Contributing Ed.