vanilla bean pods

Vanilla extract, from vanilla bean pods, is used as a flavor enhancer in baking.


What is Vanilla?

Vanilla is an aromatic flavoring made from the beans of the vanilla orchid. It is used in the food, cosmetics, and fragrance industries. When used in food, vanilla enhances other flavors and adds sweetness.

It comes in several different forms such as whole beans, extract, oil, powder, and synthetic flavor and is used as a flavoring in baked goods, confectionary, beverages, sauces, and ice cream. The flavor is often described as floral, woody, smoky, rummy, and fruity.1


Vanilla originated in Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean. It was discovered and exported back to Europe by Spanish explorers visiting the Americas. Vanilla grows in tropical regions of the world, 15½ degrees to the north and south of the Equator.2

Today, the majority is produced in Madagascar, although East Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, and Polynesia also grow vanilla for sale.2  Mexico is no longer a major producer of vanilla. Climate change, political unrest, premature harvesting, and damaging weather impact the harvest and price.

Chemical composition

Vanilla composition is characterized by volatile compounds. Around 85% of the volatiles are vanillin.3 Over 130 different chemical compounds that contribute to the nuances of its flavor have been identified. These include phenols, phenol ether, alcohols, carbonyl compounds, acids, ester, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbon hydrates, and heterocyclic compounds.3


Vanilla is used as a flavoring or to enhance other flavors, such as chocolate, caramel, and coffee.

Commercial production

Vanilla is a labor-intensive agricultural product. After a 3-foot (1-meter) vine cutting is planted, it will take at least 1½ years before the vine flowers.2 The flowers must be hand-pollinated. The beans remain on the vine for 9 months.2 They are harvested by hand, and must then go through a curing, drying and resting period, which takes 3 to 5 months.2 It takes at least 3 years from planting to sale.2


Vanilla can be used in whole-bean form, split and seeds scraped, or ground. The most common form used in the baking industry is vanilla extract. It enhances the flavor of chocolate by rounding out the bitter notes.3 It enhances sweetness perception in bakery products.3 Pure vanilla extract is generally not used for baking because the aromatic components of extracts begin to volatilize at about 280° to 300°F.3 Vanilla-vanillin extracts and artificial flavors are recommended for baking applications.3


Vanilla is available in the following forms:

Vanilla beans

  • Bourbon (Madagascar) — contains many seeds, has a rich vanilla smell and taste, and a thick and oily skin (which is very desirable); it is thought to be the “gold standard” of the industry.
  • Tahitian – used in food and cosmetics, its flavor is characterized by floral, fruity, almond and anise notes. It is grown on isolated islands of French Polynesia.1
  • Indonesian or Java – generally contains the lowest levels of vanillin, likely because of early harvesting and curing of vanilla beans.1

Pure vanilla extract – made by steeping vanilla beans in alcohol and water. It is regulated by the FDA to be a minimum of 35% alcohol and 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean per gallon.3 In the food industry, strengths may be double- or triple-fold.

WONF (with other natural flavors) – a vanilla flavor made with natural products. This may or may not contain vanilla beans.3

Vanilla powder – a mixture of ground vanilla beans combined with carbohydrate carriers and flow agents.3

Artificial vanillin – synthetically produced from guaiacol, a coal tar derivative; or lignin, a by-product of the paper industry.3 95% of the world’s “vanilla” products are flavored with vanillin, derived from lignin instead of vanilla.

FDA Regulation

The FDA defines vanilla as follows:4

“a.       The term vanilla beans means the properly cured and dried fruit pods of Vanilla planifolia Andrews and of Vanilla tahitensis Moore.

  1.  The term unit weight of vanilla beans means, in the case of vanilla beans containing not more than 25% moisture, 13.35 ounces of such beans; and, in the case of vanilla beans containing more than 25% moisture, it means the weight equivalent in moisture-free vanilla-bean solids to 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans containing 25% moisture. (For example, one unit weight of vanilla beans containing 33.25% moisture amounts to 15 ounces.)
  2.  The term unit of vanilla constituent means the total sapid and odorous principles extractable from one unit weight of vanilla beans, as defined in paragraph (b) of this section, by an aqueous alcohol solution in which the content of ethyl alcohol by volume amounts to not less than 35%.”


  1. Brunschwig C., Rochard S., Pierrat A., Rouger A., Senger‐Emonnot P., George G., Raharivelomanana P. Volatile composition and sensory properties of Vanilla ×tahitensis bring new insights for vanilla quality control. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 96.3 (2016):848-58.
  2. Rain, P. Facts and FAQs | All about vanilla. The Vanilla Company.  10 December 2015, Accessed 03 August 2017.
  3. KAU Agri Infotech Portial Center for E-Learning. Vanilla composition and vanillin content. Kerala Agricultural University (2013). Accessed 03 August 2017.
  4. United States FDA. Title 21: Food and Drugs PART 169—FOOD DRESSINGS AND FLAVORINGS Subpart A—General Provisions. ECFR — Code of Federal Regulations, FDA, Accessed 03 August 2017.