Photo © Steven Foster
Vanilla has the unique characteristic of being the only species of orchid that is commercially cultivated for its flavor and aroma, not just for its aesthetic properties.1 The plant is native to South America, the West Indies, and Florida.2 The species is a climbing orchid, producing pale yellow-green flowers and fruit pods.2
History and Cultural Significance
The word vanilla is derived from the Spanish word vaina meaning “pod” and planifolia meaning “flat-leaved.”1 Ancient Aztecs used vanilla for its culinary properties by adding the spice to their chocolate.2 The Spanish learned about this flavorful spice from the Aztecs and brought it to Europe in the sixteenth century.1 In folk medicine, vanilla was used as a stimulant, digestive aid, and aphrodisiac.1 Madagascar, where the vanilla orchid was introduced in the early 1800s, has become one of the main cultivators of vanilla today.3
Vanilla has an enormous market as a culinary spice because of its distinct and beloved flavor.1 It can be found in ice cream, yogurt, cereal, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and custards.1 The aroma of vanilla has created a market for the extract in a variety of non-culinary industries.2 Some examples include vanilla flavored candles, incense, potpourri, and home fragrances. The tobacco industry also commonly adds vanilla to their products for extra flavor.2
Currently, there are no clinical studies available on the internal or external use of Vanilla planifolia.
Because of the unique cultivation requirements of vanilla, commercial producers have found it impossible to meet the demand for genuine vanilla. Imitation vanilla, a sulfite waste by-product of the wood pulp used in the paper industry, which does not match the rich flavor of genuine vanilla, is often substituted.1 Government rules require industries to label the product if imitation vanilla has been used. As can be expected, consumers are required to pay more for genuine vanilla. Until methods are found to improve the cultivation of vanilla, prices will remain high for true vanilla.
1 Onstad D. Whole Foods Companion. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.; 1996.
2 Bown D. The Herb Society of America New Encyclopedia of Herbs and Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.; 2001.
3 Daley S. Vanilla farming? Not as bland as you might think. New York Times. Monday, January 19, 1998.