For centuries people all over the world have enjoyed the scent and flavor of vanilla, the most expensive spice after saffron. The Spanish discovered it in xocolatl, chocolate, the favorite drink of the Aztec’s. They combined honey, water, chocolate, and vanilla.
Vanilla comes from a beautiful orchid. The only natural pollinators are a humming-bird and bee found in Mexico. The flower blooms at sunrise and dies at sunset. If not pollinated during this tiny window of time, it dies without producing a bean that can later be harvested.
In the 1830’s a 12-year-old slave discovered that he could successfully pollinate the flower by hand. Today, we have vanilla extract, flavoring, and scent, because of the implementation of this same method, which made it possible to produce more than the less reliable natural method.
High demand has caused a world-wide search of other sources of vanilla. The primary component, vanillin, has been extracted from Chinese red pine and clove. An unexpected plentiful source was found in the 1930 ‘s – lignin – a by-product of the paper industry.
That “imitation vanilla” that you choose over the pricey “pure vanilla extract”, probably comes via a paper mill. It’s never even come close to a vanilla bean. Also, anything that says it is flavored with “vanillin” is not vanilla at all, but from one of these other sources. Which brings me to the title of our story…
Each year Harvard University hands out its “Ig Noble” awards to findings and studies that can make you both think and laugh. In 2007, at her own expense, Mayu Yamamtoto from Japan flew in to receive her award. She discovered a way to extract vanillin from cow dung. It was her utmost hope to help the planet by finding use for this most plentiful of commodities.
Just like no one thought it important to notify you of your “vanilla” coming from wood pulp, don’t expect a grand announcement of the change to cow dung if it happens. Oh, by the way, did you know that the world’s largest consumer of vanilla flavoring is…….. Coca Cola?