Vanilla is the fruit of a thick green orchid vine (v. planifolia) that grows wild on the edge of the Mexican tropical forests. The word vanilla, derived from the diminutive of the Spanish word vaina (vaina itself meaning sheath or pod), simply translates as little pod.
Natural Pollination of Vanilla Orchid:
Native only to Central America it took until the 19th century for botanists to figure out how it could be grown commercially in other tropical climates. The problem was that this orchid, in order to produce the vanilla pod (beans), needs to be pollinated by bees, Melipona bees to be precise, or a species of hummingbird. And these species were only in Central America.
The second problem to commercial growers was that when the orchid flower opens it does so for a very short time, less than a day. If the flower is not pollinated by the bees in that short time, it will fall off. So even though the bees were introduced to other tropical areas of the world, commercial growers could not depend on the bees pollinating all the open orchid flowers. It wasn’t until “hand pollination” of the flowers was developed that vanilla could be successfully grown commercially.
Why is Vanilla so costly?
After hand pollinating select flowers, the green pods or beans that grow from these flowers, are plucked and undergo a fermentation process. For upto 2-6 months, these beans are dried by day and wrapped in blankets at night to allow “sweating” until the beans become a very dark brown color and develop a white crystalline substance (or frost) on the outside of the bean, called vanillin. The vanillin is what gives the beans their wonderful flavor and aroma and these beans are prized. They are further “aged” like wine for upto 2 years before reaching our stores. This time and labour intensive process, demand and the benefits of vanilla make it the second most expensive spice in the world, next to saffron.
Vanilla is sold in different forms: extract and essence, pods (beans), powdered, and vanilla sugar. Pure vanilla, with its wonderful aromatic flavor, is the most widely used flavoring in pastries, confections, and other desserts. Mexican, Tahitian, Indonesian and Bourbon vanilla are the main varieties.
Top 16 Health Facts of Aromatic VANILLA for your Mind and Body:
- Aphrodisiac: Vanilla has shown to cure impotency, in men, by boosting testosterone levels, inducing feelings of pleasure and satiation, and increasing penile blood flow.
- Anti-Carcinogenic: Vanilla’s anti-carcinogenic property, primarily comes from the compound vanillin, a polyphenol known to be a powerful antioxidant. The essential oil of vanilla has been shown to reduce free radicals.
- Antidepressant: Vanilla extract (processed to purity with alcohol) acts as a mild tranquilizer and sedative, and helps fight inflammation from fevers. Useful in treatment of depression and anxiety disorders.
- Aromatherapy: Vanilla extract is known for its calming, soothing effect and has been successfully used to combat mild sleep disorders using Aromatherapy.
- Antibacterial: Vanillin, vital component of Vanilla, helps eradicate skin problems such as pimples and acne.
- Anti Aging: The antioxidant properties of vanilla help fight damage caused by free radicals, slowing down the aging process. The cosmetic industry uses vanilla both for its fragrance as well as anti-aging properties.
- For Burns: Topical treatments, containing vanilla, have been used to heal burns, cuts, and wounds.
- For Coughing: Its mild anesthetic properties relieve symptoms of sore throat and headache. Cough syrups often use vanilla flavoring to mask bitter tastes.
- For Toothache: Vanillin, like capsaicin from chilli peppers and eugenols from cinnamon, is used as a pain reliever, in topical anesthetics, against toothaches and infections.
- Prevents Morning Sickness: Vanilla infused herbal tea is a traditional remedy for nausea, vomiting, and stomach upsets. The aroma of vanilla helps ease queasiness.
- Anti inflammatory: Vanilla has proven effective in soothing inflammations due to its antioxidant properties.
- Vitamins Store: Contains small amounts of B-complex groups of vitamins such as niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B-6. These vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism.
- Minerals Store: Contains traces of calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc. Also includes traces of other constituents such as eugenol, caproic acid, phenoles, phenol ether, alcohols, carbonyl compounds, acids, ester, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbohydrates and vitispiranes.
- Skin and hair care products: Its pleasant aroma is useful in bath and beauty products. Vanilla oil mixed with cocoa butter makes a sweet-smelling moisturizer.
- In Massage Oils: Stir a few drops of vanilla essential oil into almond oil to create your own blend for romantic massages. Lavender and cucumber oils can be added to enhance the pleasure.
- Flavoring agent: Vanilla beans are one of the most expensive non-pungent spices especially used as flavoring agent in a wide array of sweet-drinks and confectioneries.
Side Effects and Precautions:
- Skin contact can cause irritation and swelling (inflammation).
- It might also cause headache and sleep problems (insomnia), especially for people who manufacture vanilla extract.
- Vanilla extract is an expensive product. As a result, lab-produced vanillin is sometimes passed off by unscrupulous manufacturers as pure vanilla extract.
- More worrisome is the occasional batch of vanilla extract produced in Mexico that is mixed with tonga bean extract, which contains a chemical called coumarin. The FDA has prohibited use of coumarin in foods since the 1950s.