Vanilla is orchid
The freshly harvested pods do not have a distinct aroma because the vanillin is firmly bound to a molecule called a “glycoside”.
After being rinsed in hot water, then cured for months, the vanillin is finally released by the action of biological enzymes and time, giving it an attractive, creamy aroma.
(Note: Vanilla contains many aromatic substances, but vanillin is the predominant one.)
The Aztecs (Mexican Indians) were known to make beverages from chervil, but Spanish settlers brought it back to Europe, where the exotic spice quickly became popular with royalty and aristocrats.
Later, it was widely cultivated in the tropics, especially around the Indian Ocean, with Madagascar becoming the most important place for its cultivation.
The most widely planted variety of vanilla orchid in the world today is known as Madagascar Burbon Vanilla, which has a high vanillin content and high quality.
(Note: Île Burbon is an island in Madagascar, named after the French Bourbon dynasty, which changed its name to Réunion after the French Revolution, now known as La Réunion).
Mostly by synthesis
As one of the most important fragrances in the world today, vanillin extracted from vanilla is widely used in the food, beverage, pharmaceutical, perfume, cosmetic and other industries.
Due to the high demand, natural vanillin is expensive and simply not enough, people have to look to chemically synthesized vanillin.
In the 19th century, European chemists purified vanillin and identified its chemical structure. After continuous research, scientists finally succeeded in synthesizing vanillin with eugenol and entered into commercial application.
It was the first synthetic flavor in the world, and along with the industrialization revolution of food industry, it became the true “king of flavors”.
Since then, the synthesis of vanillin has undergone several innovations and improvements, and is now mainly synthesized from petrochemical by-products.
In the 21st century, the pursuit of “natural substances” has given rise to the new process of producing vanillin by bio-fermentation, but due to high costs, it has not become the mainstream.
Of course, what people do not know is that the chemical structure of vanillin is exactly the same as that of natural vanillin, even if it is synthesized.
Because of its “methoxy”, vanillin is also known as methyl vanillin.
Scientists have also synthesized something called ethyl vanillin, although it is more expensive than methyl vanillin, but because it has a stronger and longer-lasting fragrance, so the actual application cost is lower.
Wide range of applications
Currently the world produces around 20,000 tons of vanillin per year, with France, the United States, Norway and China being the main producers, and China accounts for about 70-80% of global production, more than half of which is exported.
Vanillin is mainly used in the food industry for ice cream, chocolate, candy, pastries, cookies, etc., but it is used for much more than that.
Vanillin is a small molecule compound, in the field of chemical synthesis is equivalent to a screw, by which it is involved in the “assembly” of a lot of substances.
For example, Japanese companies use vanillin derivatives to synthesize “advantame”, a new sweetener (approved for use) that is 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose.
In fact, nearly half of the world’s vanillin is used to synthesize drugs.
Safe and reliable
Humans have been consuming vanillin for thousands of years, and synthetic vanillin has been in use for nearly 100 years.
As for the safety of methyl vanillin, the International Codex Alimentarius Commission Expert Group has rigorously evaluated that 600 milligrams per day for a 60-kilogram adult will not pose a problem, while Europeans and Americans consume about 55-150 milligrams per day.
Similarly, 180 mg of ethyl vanillin per day for a 60-kg adult is not a problem, while Europeans and Americans consume only 6-43 mg per day.
Considering the dietary structure, Chinese people eat even less, so there is no need to worry at all.
Of course, very few people may be allergic to vanilla and will have to say goodbye to most chocolates and ice creams.
For example, the US FDA has long listed vanillin and ethyl-vanillin as GRAS substances, which means they are quite safe.
The European Union also allows the use of vanillin in food with no limit on scope and dosage.
In China, vanillin is allowed to be used in all kinds of food without restriction, but vanillin is not allowed to be added to one section of milk powder, while other infant milk powder and dietary supplements are restricted in dosage.
Another interesting fact is that people are worried about “synthetic flavors” without realizing that they are probably already present in foods, such as coffee, oatmeal, wine and other foods that can produce trace amounts of vanillin during storage and processing.