The Problem with Vanilla

From Scientific American:

Edmond Albius was an enslaved worker in the French colony of Réunion who, after close inspection of the vanilla orchid Vanilla planifolia, figured out how to hand-pollinate its flower to produce vanilla beans.

Albius used the stick to push up a flap in the orchid flower called the rostellum and press the pollen-coated anther against the female part, or stigma. Until Albius’s discovery, vanilla had been successfully cultivated only in its native southeastern Mexico, home of its pollinator, the Melipona bee. It was there that the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés famously witnessed the Aztec Emperor Montezuma drinking a chocolate beverage flavored with vanilla.

In Réunion, output of vanilla soared thanks to the Albius method, and orchid cultivation expanded to nearby Madagascar. Today, about 80% of the world’s natural vanilla comes from smallholder farms in Madagascar. There, locals continue to pollinate orchids by hand and cure the beans in the traditional fashion.

It didn’t take long for vanilla demand to exceed supply from the farms of Madagascar. In the 1800s and 1900s, chemists took over from botanists to expand supply of the flavor. Vanillin, the main flavor component of cured vanilla beans, was synthesized variously from pine bark, clove oil, rice bran, and lignin.

Rhône-Poulenc, now Solvay, commercialized a pure petrochemical route in the 1970s. In recent years, of the roughly 18,000 metric tons of vanilla flavor produced annually, about 85% is vanillin synthesized from the petrochemical precursor guaiacol. Most of the rest is from lignin.

But the traditional vanilla bean is starting to enjoy a renaissance, thanks to consumer demand for all-natural foods and beverages. Last year, a string of giant food companies, including General Mills, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, and Nestlé, vowed to eliminate artificial flavors and other additives from many foods sold in the U.S.

There is a problem, however: World production …

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