Vanilla ranks as the second spice in two categories: popularity and price. Chocolate is the preferred flavour; saffron is the most expensive spice. However, research in Malaysia might reduce the price by increasing the supply.
The Vanilla Orchid is the Source of Vanilla
The spice, vanilla, is extracted from the vanilla bean, which is the vanilla orchid’s fruit. This climbing vine, Vanilla planifolia, originated in Mexico but can grow in many tropical climates.
Challenges in Cultivating the Vanilla Orchid
Vanilla flowers must be pollinated to produce fertile beans. The only animals to perform this task are bees and hummingbirds native to Mexico and Central America. In the largest producing countries, China, Indonesia and Madagascar, workers must pollinate the flowers by hand. This requires a lot of manual labour and limits the availability of vanilla seeds.
The orchid may also be propagated using cuttings. This too is labour intensive, slow, and may slow the growth of the mother vine, resulting in a lower yield.
The latest approach to creating the next generations of vanilla orchids is cloning from non-reproductive cells. This promises to save time and cost, but has a significant problem.
A cloned line sometimes develops a mutation leading to lower quality yields. The resulting vines are sometimes scrapped; this is costly and, of course, sets back the expansion plans
The Artificial Alternative for Vanilla Flavouring
The flavour of vanilla is a chemical, rather prosaically called “vanillin”. Tar, tonka beans and wood provide lignin which can be processed into synthetic vanillin. The chemicals eugenol or guaiacol are other precursors for vanillin.
Natural vanilla flavour is extracted from fermented vanilla beans. The natural extract has a more complex aroma because of other aromatic chemicals that develop through the fermentation and extraction processes.
A Study to Improve Cloning Stability
In 2011, the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia Campus, working on a grant from the Malaysian government, has embarked on a two-year program to study this problem in cloning the vanilla orchid. If successful, the result should guide future cloning techniques so the orchid can be grown on a larger scale.
A greater supply of vanilla beans may mean lower prices for real vanilla extract.
Physorg, “Preserving a world favourite flavor“, published April 15, 2011, referenced April 18, 2011.
UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, “Spices – Vanilla“, copyright 2002, referenced April 19, 2011.