Vanilla is among the most popular flavoring agents in the world. It is extracted from the mature pods of certain orchids, commonly the Vanilla planifolia. Currently, Madagascar produces around 75% of the world’s vanilla. It’s also produced in China, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Mexico.
Vanilla extract and vanilla beans are used in food, perfumes, and pharmaceutical products. It’s among the top three most expensive spices in the world, alongside saffron and cardamom.
Vanillin is a phenolic plant compound found in vanilla extract and beans. It’s the most researched component of vanilla. Synthetic vanillin is also produced in labs in China, France, and the United States. Vanillin can also be derived from other foods like rice bran oil and clove oil.
Research shows that vanillin has several benefits properties, including:
- Antioxidant. Vanillin is known to have powerful antioxidant properties.
- Anticancer. Some evidence suggests that vanillin may have anticancer properties.
- Anti-inflammatory. Vanillin has been shown to exhibit anti-inflammatory effects in animal and test-tube studies.
- Neuroprotective. According to some rodent studies, vanillin may benefit brain health and protect against neurodegenerative diseases.
Vanilla production from orchids is labor-intensive and typically involves hand pollination on small orchid farms. Thus, the shortage of natural vanilla and the growing demand for this product has sparked the need for alternatives to vanilla from orchids.
While natural vanilla extract is composed of hundreds of compounds, including vanillin, synthetic vanilla only contains vanillin. For this reason, synthetic vanilla likely has different health effects than natural vanilla products like natural vanilla extract and vanilla bean.
Two of vanilla’s phenolic plant components, vanillin and vanillic acid, have been researched for their antioxidant potential. A 2020 test-tube study found that both vanillin and vanillic acid protected brain cells against oxidative stress. Of the two, vanillin was found to be more powerful. A 2021 study in aging rats observed that vanillin protected against liver damage and age-associated oxidative damage.
Vanilla products also contain substances shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. A 2018 study that fed mice a high fat diet to promote obesity demonstrated how oral vanillin supplements reduced inflammatory markers like interleukin-6 (IL-6) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α) in both blood and liver tissue.
Another 2017 study in mice found that oral treatment with varying doses of vanillin reduced skin inflammation caused by psoriasis. Other rodent and test-tube studies have likewise found that vanillin protects against inflammation-related cell damage.
Some research suggests that certain compounds found in vanilla, including vanillin and vanillic acid, may support brain health. A 2021 study investigated the neuroprotective effects of vanillic acid among mice injected with a neurotoxin – a substance that can harm your nervous system. (UGH!) It found that vanillic acid injections protected against nerve cell inflammation, reduced markers related to Alzheimer’s disease, and lessened memory impairment caused by the neurotoxin.
Using vanilla extract or vanilla bean powder in foods and beverages could help reduce your added sugar intake. A 2020 study including 129 young adults found that adding vanilla aroma to sugary drinks enhanced their perceived sweetness. A 2021 study also demonstrated that flavoring a reduced-sugar yogurt with vanilla did not affect its perceived sweetness.
How to Buy
In addition to vanilla extract, whole vanilla beans, and vanilla bean powder, you can also purchase vanilla paste. The paste is made from vanilla beans, vanilla extract, and natural thickeners.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pure vanilla extract must contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per 1 gallon of liquid.
Look for products that contain only vanilla bean extract and alcohol. Note that pure extract is much more expensive than products that contain synthetic vanillin and additives like sugar and artificial flavors and colors.
You can purchase pure vanilla extract, bean powder, and whole beans at most grocery stores and online.
Whenever possible, purchase vanilla products from companies like Vanilla Bean Project, Lafaza, or other brands that partner directly with vanilla farmers to support fair trade and sustainability.
How to Store
When stored properly, vanilla extract will keep indefinitely, but using it within five years will allow for best flavor and aroma. Do not refrigerate or freeze, even after opening.
You should never store your vanilla beans in the refrigerator. Refrigeration will dry out your beans and excess moisture can promote a particular type of mold specific to vanilla. Store your airtight container in a cool, dark place.
How to Cook
Here are a few ways to use vanilla products in your kitchen:
- Add a dash of vanilla bean powder to smoothies.
- Sprinkle vanilla bean powder or a few drops of vanilla extract into coffee drinks.
- Use vanilla extract in baked goods like cakes and cookies.
- Use vanilla bean powder in pancake and waffle mixes.