One of my favorite parts of baking Christmas cookies with my mom every year was adding the vanilla extract. The little vial of pungent liquid felt like part of a chemistry experiment and, as a little freak child, I loved taking a big whiff of the stuff. I always just assumed that vanilla extract was in everything vanilla-flavored, but the reality is a lot more complex than that and also, maybe, involves a beaver’s butt?
Where does vanilla flavor come from?
Vanilla is technically a spice that comes from the orchids of a vanilla plant. We commonly see things flavored with vanilla called “vanilla bean,” but this is a misnomer. The “bean” is actually a fruit that grows on the plant after pollination. When the fruit grows on the plant, it is fat and green (like a bean) but it has to go through a curing process before it can be turned into the flavoring. This makes the vanilla look like a long, black bean, which is often depicted in commercial images of vanilla flavoring.
The plant originated throughout Mexico and Central America however, thanks to advancements in artificial pollination, there are now several different species that are grown worldwide. Today, 80% of the world’s commercially available vanilla comes from Madagascar.
Vanilla has a distinctive aromatic scent and flavor, making it the most popular flavoring in the world. You can find it in all sorts of foods like ice cream and yogurt and even non-food items like candles and deodorants.
How is vanilla flavoring made?
Harvesting vanilla is an extremely labor-intensive process, which is one reason why it’s the second most expensive spice in the world, right behind saffron. (It doesn’t help that it’s primarily produced in Madagascar.)
First, to get the fruit to grow, most vanilla is hand-pollinated. Then the fruit must be harvested and go through the curing process, which can take upwards of seven months. Through this process, the fruits are dried out until they achieve that long black bean look, and really develop their aromatic flavor. They are then shipped out either as whole pods, ground powder, vanilla sugar, or vanilla extract.
To create vanilla extract, producers steep the cured beans in a mixture of water and ethyl alcohol. This creates the brown liquid that is bottled and used in a lot of baking and desserts.
What is artificial vanilla flavoring?
Because of the complexity of vanilla’s harvesting and commercial availability, many of the vanilla flavored foods we all love are created with artificial vanilla flavoring rather than the real stuff. One of the many naturally-occurring compounds in the vanilla fruit that contributes to its distinct flavor is called vanillin. Vanillin can be extracted from the vanilla fruit but, again, that is an insanely labor-intensive process.
So, scientists have synthetically recreated vanillin in a lab. They have replicated the taste of vanilla pretty well, but you can still tell the difference between artificial and natural vanilla. That’s because natural vanilla is so aromatic that it contributes heavily to the taste. Vanillin has yet to replicate that aromatic component, so it’s going to seem slightly synthetic.
Does vanilla flavoring come from a beaver?
There are a lot of food rumors out there but perhaps the strangest of them all is that artificial vanilla flavoring comes from a beaver’s butt. How in the world did this idea start?
Beavers have a gland near their butts called a castor sac. They use this to release castoreum, a scent that helps them mark their territory. Decades ago, castoreum was used in perfumes and musks because it does have a strangely sweet smell to it. And yes, there were tiny amounts of castoreum used in the creation of artificial vanilla flavoring.
However, the advancements in food science since then have completely removed castoreum from the synthesis of artificial vanilla, so you can be rest assured that your vanilla ice cream is beaver butt-free. That said, if you would like to try some ethically sourced vanilla flavor from a beaver’s anal sac, Tamworth Distilling in New Hampshire makes a whiskey flavored with it.