Most of the people identify vanilla as a flavor used to enhance the taste of food products and dietary supplements. However, a majority of these people do not anything more about it. This article intends to introduce you to the inside and out of this flavoring agent.
A tropical orchid, Vanilla is probably the world’s most popular flavoring agents mainly used in food, pharmaceutical preparations and perfumery. Natural vanilla constitutes of flavors derived from two different species of vanilla orchids – Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla planifolia. Vanilla extract owes its flavor and fragrance to over 200 components, with vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) being the key component constituting 1—2 percent w/w of cured vanilla pods. 
Like wine, natural vanilla displays different taste and potency, depending on the places where it grown including Madagascar, Mexico, or Tahiti. For example, Madagascar vanilla, referred to as Bourbon vanilla, is among the most sought after versions, courtesy its sweet aroma and rummy taste.  The vanilla extract draws its color from vanilla beans that have dark brown color.
Composition of vanilla extract
Vanilla extract is a solution of extractable components of vanilla beans prepared in aqueous ethyl alcohol. It can either be produced directly from vanilla beans or can be synthesized in a semisolid form called vanilla oleo-resin by adding concentrated vanilla extract to the alcohol. The major constituents of vanilla extract may contain one or more of optional ingredients including glycerin, propylene glycol, dextrose, sugar (including invert sugar) and/or corn sirup (including dried corn sirup). 
The vanilla extract, known for its pure and delicate spicy flavor, is extracted from fermented vanilla pods. The quality of the extract depends on the vanillin content. However, only less than 1 percent of vanillin was obtained from vanilla pods in 2010 because extraction of this fragrant volatile constituent is a laborious and costly affair. Extraction of vanilla is a very labor-intensive job. An estimated 500 kg of vanilla pods are required to produce 1 kg of vanillin, which corresponds to the pollination of nearly 40,000 vanilla orchid flowers. Beans are plucked while still green, which are purchased by fermentation plants that sort, blanch, steam, and dry them in the sun. Thereafter, they are sorted again and left to dry in the shade. Workers, then, ferment them while continually analyzing their aroma and inspecting each bean for quality.
Considering the costs and complexities involved in extracting vanillin from vanilla orchid, the majority of vanillin demand is met through synthetic production using lignin and eugenol as starting material. 
Need of artificial vanilla
Processed vanilla beans from natural sources contain only 2 percent of extractable vanilla flavor, which translates into a hefty price tag of $11,000 per kg for pure vanilla.
Dairy products including ice cream and yogurt have been dependent on natural vanilla for many years. The U.S., Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warrants to flavor vanilla ice cream from natural vanilla. Carol McBride, U.S. vanilla category manager at Symrise suggested that the total amount of all the vanilla beans harvested across the world is not enough to meet the “flavoring” needs of the world. 
Pure vanilla extract vs. imitation
Considering the scarcity of pure vanilla extract, many manufacturers are involved in producing artificial or imitation vanilla, made using a synthetic vanilla flavor. This imitation product has a strong vanilla flavor, which can be produced cheaply in a local lab. While pure vanilla extract is produced from three major ingredients including vanilla beans, alcohol and water, imitation vanilla is made from synthetic vanillin, which could be procured from wood pulp waste including clove oil, pine bark and fermented bran.
Homemade vanilla extract
Hearing about the complexities involved in manufacturing vanilla extract from natural sources may make you wonder if it is such a difficult thing to get. But, the good news is it’s not. You can even prepare it at home. Here is a step-by-step guide to prepare this delicious and fragrant food product at home.
Step 1: First, gather the ingredients including vanilla beans and liquor.
Step 2: Now pour these ingredients in a food-grade glass jar. For each cup of alcohol, you can use three to five beans.
Step 3: Pour alcohol over the vanilla beans, until all beans are submerged completely.
Step 4: Leave the contents for six weeks, or until you see a dark brown extract with a strong vanilla fragrance. 
Vanilla extract can also be prepared through hot method. The vanilla extract prepared through this method has slightly stronger flavor and takes comparatively lesser time. In the hot method, alcohol is poured in a pan and is heated until it just simmers. Then, add vanilla beans into the empty alcohol bottle and pour the hot alcohol over the top until the beans are completely submerged in alcohol. Wait for four weeks, or until the mixture starts looking and smelling like vanilla extract.
After understanding different aspects related to extraction of vanilla, here are the resolutions to some frequently asked questions about vanilla and vanillin.
Drinking vanilla extract can make you drunk
It sounds weird but it is true. In 2015, a 46-year old woman in New York was booked for drunk driving. She blew a 0.26 on the breathalyzer. But, what surprised the law enforcement that she hadn’t consumed alcohol. In fact, she was high on vanilla extract. 
The vanilla extract induced intoxication is possible due to high alcohol content present in the vanilla extract, which is used for produce the extract. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed up to 35 percent alcohol in pure vanilla extract. In addition to vanilla extract, other ethanol containing products such as mouthwash, food flavorings, perfumes and cold medicines can also cause intoxication. 
In comparison, beer has around two to six percent of alcohol content while wine contains about 10 to 20 percent alcohol. Distilled liquors have around 40—50 percent alcohol content. While in most cases, vanilla extract loses its alcohol in the cooking process, its direct ingestion may produce effects similar to drinking hard liquor. A report from the Internet Scientific Publications (ISPUB) suggests that a person weighing nearly 154 pounds who consumes a 12-ounce bottle of extract will have a peak blood alcohol level (BAC) three times higher the legal driving limit.
Vanilla doesn’t need an expiration date
Vanilla extract, due to its high alcohol content, has no expiry date. However, it should be a pure vanilla extract to maintain a very long shelf life. In addition, make sure the container used to store it is properly sealed in order to prevent any bacterial activity. 
Use of vanilla in dietary products
Vanilla is also used as a flavoring agent in food items including strawberry, caramel, chocolate and coconut. It enhances the natural taste of the product by adding creaminess, controlling or covering bitterness and acidity, and balancing sweetness.
Vanilla for medicinal purposes
In addition to adding flavor to foods, cosmetics, beverages and drugs, vanilla is also known for to show multifunctional effects including antioxidant, antidepressant and analgesic effects. 
According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vanilla extract components may be potentially used as antioxidants for food preservation as well as in health supplements as nutraceuticals. 
The studies suggest that ethanolic leaf extracts such as pure vanilla extracts are known to possess antimicrobial properties. It makes these plants an effective remedy of bacteria including Klebsiella pneumonia and Salmonella typhi, known for causing pneumonia and food poisoning among others respectively. 
Like many fruits and vegetables, vanilla is known to exhibit anti-inflammatory properties, which helps reduce risk of different problems associated with wear and tear. It includes osteoarthritis, and autoimmune diseases, such as allergies, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease. 
Even artificial vanilla extract has medicinal properties
A new study reveals that synthetic vanilla extract or vanillin can help prevent and treat psoriasis. Researchers found that administration of vanillin to psoriasis-affected mice for a week caused a signification improvement in skin inflammation while psoriatic mice that were not treated with the substance did not show much reduction in symptoms. A chronic disease, psoriasis is caused due to an overactive immune system, which enhances the rate of production of new skin cells, thereby causing inflammation. The condition is characterized red, itchy and flaky skin, especially on the knees, scalp, elbows, hands and feet. 
Vanilla extract in baking
Both imitation and pure extract is being used in baking. Vanilla extract acts the same way as salt in baking products. It enhances the natural flavor of other ingredients in the recipe. In the absence of vanilla extract, cookies and cakes could taste flat and bland. From cakes to cookies and marshmallows to buttercream frosting, the end product would never taste right without a drop of vanilla extract. 
However, it is really difficult to tell the difference between the two when used as a baking agent, courtesy the strong flavors they possess. However, products where vanilla extract is the principal agent and not just the flavoring agent (such as a vanilla pound cake), the difference can be felt. Since both the real and imitation are sold in the grocery store side by side, it is your job to pick the one you want to buy. Just read the label and be ready to pay some extra for quality. 
Is it fine to give babies vanilla extract?
Remember, pure vanilla often contain a high alcohol content, which is used to extract and preserve the flavor of the herb. Therefore, it is important that while you use vanilla for flavoring baby foods, make sure it is either vanilla bean or vanilla essence that is not labeled as “pure”. Pure vanilla can be used in foods that require cooking or baking as it will cook off alcohol. Make sure, you never add vanilla extract or any other flavoring to your baby’s bottle of breast milk or bottle of formula. 
Putting vanilla extract in coffee
Experimentation with coffee is almost everybody’s cup of tea. Those who are looking for more ideas to make their taste better everyday can bookmark this web page. While some of you must have tried it earlier, many may still not be aware of a vanilla coffee. All you need to do to enjoy a vanilla-flavor coffee is to add 1/4 teaspoon to 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract in one cup of coffee. Coffee lovers who want to make their coffee taste like vanilla can leave their coffee beans with a vanilla pod overnight. And the next morning when you roast them, you can’t help but thank us for this delicious idea. 
Easy substitutes of vanilla extract
While vanilla extract is irreplaceable for its characteristic aroma and flavor, the high cost and scarcity of pure form may bother some people. However, these people can meet their needs through some affordable and easily available substitutes of vanilla extract, especially when you are looking for a baking agent. You may pick from your options including maple syrup, vanilla milk, rum or brandy, almond extract and vanilla paste/powder.
Alcohol free vanilla extract
Commercially available pure vanilla extract contains alcohol as per the FDA guidelines. However, people interested in alcohol-free vanilla extract can prepare it easily at home using alternatives such as vegetable glycerin. Here is your complete recipe.
Step: 1Slice the vanilla beans vertically. Put them in bottle and toss.
Step 2: Pour glycerin into the bottle contents and put the lid on.
Step 3: Let it rest for around 4 weeks
Step 4: Give the bottle a vigorous shake once a week for 4 weeks. After that, shake it 2-3 times per week.
Step 5: Wait for the glycerin to turn dark. Now, take the lid off to enjoy the mesmerizing fragrance. Your alcohol-free vanilla extract is ready. 
Be cautious while using vanillin
It is important to take care of safety standards while using vanillin. Remember, vanillin can be hazardous in case of ingestion, eye contact (irritant), and slightly hazardous in case of skin contact. Contact your health care provider immediately if you feel uncomfortable after contacting or ingesting vanillin.
With this article, we try to educate you about every possible aspect of your very own vanilla flavor. We hope, the next time you hear the word ‘vanilla’ around you, you know its complete story from a seed to a mesmerizing flavor.