For centuries, people have been obsessed with vanilla. Since Hernado Cortez introduced it to Europe in the 1520’s, economies around the world have benefitted from this intoxicating flavour. The history of vanilla has affected several economies and opened trade routes between Europe, Mexico and Madagascar. The price of pure vanilla has never been low because of the rarity and labor intensity of the product.
Vanilla originates in Mexico and it was the pre columbium Mesoamerican that cultivated it. Vanilla needs a specific bee called the Melipona bee. The bee is only found in Mexico and is very localized, you can say it was impossible for Europeans to create their own strains of vanilla because the bees did not survive outside of their own area. It was not until 1841, nearly 300 years after it was first introduced to Europe that Edmond Albius, who was a 12 year old slave, living on the French island Réunion, found he could hand pollinate the crops.
The hand pollination is done by using a small stick, which is a sliver of bamboo. Vanilla flowers are hermaphroditic, which means that they carry both male and female organs. However, to avoid self pollination, the orchid grows a membrane between the two parts of the flower. The workers remove the membrane from inside the flower and squeeze the female and male sex organs of the flower, thus creating pollination. A healthy vanilla vine produces between fifty to a hundred beans per year. It takes the fruit five to six weeks to develop but it takes six months for the bean to mature.
After the beans mature, the farmers pick and hand ferment them by laying them out in the sun and putting them back into the shade during the evening so they are dry and they do not rot. The fermentation process is when the flavor the smell develops in the vanilla. Afterwards, the vanilla beans are graded, which is when it’s decided how much the vanilla is worth. The most valuable pod is a whole, plump, oily, non-blemished pod. These pods are much prized by chefs and get the highest amount of money. The cheaper, drier, stiffer blemished pods are used in the perfume industry.
Vanilla has many different uses. It is mainly used for flavoring in desserts because it’s flavor and depth is exquisite. It goes well with many other flavors too. Vanilla actually has a 35% level of alcohol because using alcohol helps make it easier to extract the flavor from the beans. Vanilla is also known to be used in aroma therapy as it calms the nerves. It can also calm the stomach, treat asthma, congestion and coughs. Hospital have found that there is a major component in vanilla that can even help with the after effects of an MRI.
Because vanilla is so expensive, companies have developed a synthetic vanilla that is easy to make and easy to buy. Vanilla is made up of 250 components and synthetic vanilla is made up of only one of those components: Vanillin. Vanillin is the major component in vanilla that gives it flavor and smell but it does not define the one of a kind taste of vanilla. Now, we use the vanillin from rice bran extract and has become the favorite of most companies.
The high price of vanilla means that some countries, such as Haiti have been prepared to cut down their native rainforests in order to grow high cash crops such as vanilla and cocoa. Formerly, Haiti was covered in sixty percent rainforest.
Unfortunately, it has now been cut down to two percent. This deforestation has only been caused because farmers needed more cash but environmental have been trying to stop it by paying the famers more money. This shows that land owners will conserve rainforests if they have an economic incentive to do so. This solution is not the most efficient because we can’t keep giving the farmers money and the famers might still want more money, especially if the price of vanilla continues to rise. For example in 2004, following a natural disaster in Madagascar, the price of vanilla went up to 500 US dollars per kilo. Until we can deal with the poverty in places that grow vanilla, we are always going to fight market forces.
The price of vanilla has always been extremely high. This is mainly because of the hard labor and specific regions required to cultivate it. It is also because the demand for vanilla flavored foods is so high for example, we have always considered vanilla as the base flavor of ice cream even when it’s not that easy to make. Most of us do not realize the hard work that is put in to make these products. The workers that cultivate and pollinate the vanilla beans do not get much money, especially compared to the price vanilla is sold for. The only way for this to stop is to either find a way for the Mexican Melipona bee to survive in places that are not Mexico or to mass produce vanilla in Mexico. Mass Production is the only doable way right now but we cannot risk deforestation all over Mexico and therefore this solution is invalid. Scientists have not yet found a way for the bees to move elsewhere without dying so we cannot solve this problem yet.
Vanilla is one of the most delicious but yet one of the most expensive foods of all. Perfume Companies, Restaurants, Factories have all used vanilla or synthetic vanilla one way or the other because of the richness in flavor. We have tried many different ways to produce vanilla without deforestation or intense labor but we have yet to find a way. Regardless of that, vanilla has made an impact on the world, in both good and bad, and the world would not be the same without it.