Mad Food Science

Chemistry + Cupcakes


Basic. Boring. Decidedly un-kinky. These are the things that come to mind when we think of vanilla. When you could have chocolate, or strawberry or butter rum ripple, choosing vanilla tells the world you’re a bit of a Ned Flanders.

Or does it?

Vanilla comes from the seed pod of orchids of the genus Vanilla (original, I know), originally from Mexico, where much of the world’s supply of vanilla still comes from today. In fact, for 300 years, Mexico had a global monopoly on vanilla production because the orchid is pollenated by a species of bee found exclusively in Mexico.

But then along came Edmond Albius, a 12 year old slave boy living on the French island of Réunion. Little Edmond uncovered a way to manually pollinate the plants, and it was this method of hand pollination that allowed the global propagation of the vanilla orchid. To this day vanilla is still hand pollinated, making its production highly labour-intensive and resulting in it being the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron).

Vanilla flavour comes from a chemical compound called vanillin (again, original). A dried vanilla seed pod is only about 2% vanillin by weight, but there are lots of other compounds in there. Hundreds, in fact. Scientists are still discovering new chemical compounds in vanilla beans that contribute to its complexity (more on that later).

Artificial vanilla extract, by comparison, is essentially just vanillin dissolved in ethanol. Where does this artificial extract come from? Well, there’s a Canadian connection (even if I do find it somewhat unappetizing). In 1981, 60% of the world’s supply of artificial vanilla extract was coming from a pulp and paper mill in Ontario.

Wait. What?

Lignin is a biopolymer found in wood, and is one of the most abundant on Earth. It was also a waste product of the sulfite pulping process used in the mid-20th Century. Scientists figured out a way to put the lignin to work, chemically transforming it into synthetic vanillin. While they did make vanilla more accessible in the marketplace, I suspect they could have better spent their time finding less environmentally destructive ways to make paper. But I digress.

Nowadays artificial vanilla extract doesn’t come from pulp and paper mills (they finally did update their production techniques and lignin became less available), but here’s a really cool reason why you should always go natural: A 2006 study found that vanilla extract (the real thing) blocked quorum sensing in bacteria.

Quorum sensing is a stimulus-responses system that colonies of bacteria use to regulate their gene expression (those little buggers are smarter than they look). For example, if a colony of potentially-infectious bacteria detects that they have enough members to overpower your immune system, they flip a genetic switch and become virulent. The study investigators hypothesize that eating vanilla may be able to suppress quorum sensing and keep your bacterial passengers friendly.

Exotic. Expensive. Entangled in slavery. Complex. Antibacterial (sort of).
Vanilla is more of a hero than a sidekick, but like all great heroes, is humble.

  • 7 November 2011
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