WHAT IS VANILLA: THE SWEET ESSENCE OF COMFORT
History of Vanilla
Benefits of Vanilla
Cultivating & Harvesting Vanilla
How is Vanilla’s Essence Extracted?
Uses of Vanilla
What is Vanilla? A spice with an aromatic essence that has become one of the most popular flavors and fragrance notes in the world!
What is Vanilla good for? Vanilla is primarily beneficial for the mood, promoting feelings of peace and calm with its sweet, rich, and familiarly comforting scent.
What is Vanilla’s cultivation like? This process takes up to a year and requires painstaking hand pollination followed by extended periods of curing and drying once beans have been harvested to produce the familiar fragrant pods.
What is Vanilla used for? Vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor, often showing up in baked goods, beverages, and confections. It is also a classic base note in many perfumes and a standard component of several popular fragrance categories.
What is Vanilla like in crafts and cosmetics? Vanilla oil contains a rich concentration of antioxidants to promote a rejuvenated appearance for the skin when added to cosmetic blends. A variety of Vanilla oils can be used in candles and soaps to impart specially formulated mood-enhancing luxury aromas.
HISTORY OF VANILLA
Vanilla’s appeal is rooted in the ancient empires of meso-America, where it has grown natively since the time of the Maya. Derived from the dried pods of tropical climbing orchids found in the forests of Mexico, Central America, and northern South America, Vanilla is believed to have provided its first gustatory influence alongside several other spices in a Mayan cacao beverage. The Totonac people of modern-day Veracruz, Mexico were the first people believed to have cultivated Vanilla, with the Aztecs acquiring the spice after conquering the Totonacs in the 15th century. Like their predecessors, the Aztecs were said to have incorporated vanilla’s flavor in the historical precursor to hot chocolate, known at the time as xocolatl.
After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the 16th century (around which time the name ‘Vanilla’ appeared from the Spanish word vaina, meaning ‘sheath’ or ‘pod’) Vanilla made its way to Europe. There it enjoyed great popularity as a flavor in its own right – it is said that Queen Elizabeth I had a taste for vanilla-flavored desserts – and attempts were made to cultivate the plant in the botanical gardens of England and France. These attempts were unsuccessful though, due to the absence of the plants’ natural pollinators, a fact that was not discovered – much to the chagrin of the Europeans – until 1836.
Shortly after this discovery, in 1841 an enslaved boy by the name of Edmond Albius, who lived on the French island of Réunion (once known as the Île Bourbon), developed a revolutionary method of hand-pollination for Vanilla plants. This technique quickly spread to Madagascar and other surrounding islands, eventually making its way back to Mexico – where cultivation was centered at the time – and is still in use today, with almost all commercially produced Vanilla being pollinated by hand. With the advent of Albius’ method in combination with colonization and globalization, the cultivation of Vanilla began to proliferate, and the spice found its way into a variety of food and beverages, confections, medicines, and perfumes.
While Vanilla beans are sourced from all over the world today, production is now centered in Madagascar, which supplies up to 70% of the world’s Vanilla. In addition to Madagascar’s specialty, Bourbon Vanilla, which has a sweet, rum-like profile, some popular commercial varieties also include Tahitian Vanilla, which is known for its fresh floral notes, Indonesian Vanilla, which has a smoky profile, and the classic Mexican Vanilla, which is known for its spicy and woody notes.
Due to the labor-intensive cultivation process, Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, after Saffron. As a result of the high production cost, supply has not always been able to keep pace with demand. Thus, many of the Vanilla essences used for fragrance and flavor applications are synthetic. It was estimated in 2017 that less than 1% of the total global market in Vanilla flavor was sourced from Vanilla beans, although Vanilla flavor appeared in roughly 18,000 products.
Synthetic Vanilla was made possible by the nineteenth-century discovery of Vanillin – the aroma chemical responsible for the signature Vanilla scent. A couple of decades after its isolation, it was discovered that Vanillin can be synthesized from other aroma chemicals such as eugenol or guaiacol, or from the lignin found in wood pulp. While recent market trends have favored the use of natural Vanilla across a range of consumer goods, the smell and taste of synthetic Vanilla show no signs of losing popularity. Regardless of its origin, Vanilla holds the title of the world’s favorite flavor, and this is unlikely to change any time soon.
BENEFITS OF VANILLA
The benefits of Vanilla are mainly for the mood, as this scent is known to impart feelings of peace, comfort, and contentment, as well as being considered an aphrodisiac. Such associations are encapsulated in an old Totonac legend in which the daughter of the Mexican fertility goddess transforms herself into a plant to bring pleasure and happiness to a mortal beloved – of course, this plant was the Vanilla orchid.
Vanilla can have a wonderfully calming influence on the mind, largely due to the positive associations most people have with the scent. The smell of Vanilla tends to trigger happy memories – often from childhood – which can elevate the mood and promote a general sense of well-being. Often paired with notions of warmth, softness, and caring, Vanilla conveys a sense of purity and simplicity that many people find grounding. This helps to promote feelings of relaxation encourage quality sleep at night. At the same time, the rich and velvety sweetness of Vanilla possesses an almost palpable sense of luxury that many find to be sensual.
The general positive reaction to the scent of Vanilla is well-known; psychological researchers have been using it for decades in experiments that require a pleasant scent. More targeted studies have demonstrated reduced startle reflexes in both humans and animals when exposed to the scent of Vanilla, as well as soothing effects on newborns and infants in distress, supporting its reputation as a calming aromatic essence. These effects are primarily attributable to Vanillin, the main chemical constituent and aromatic underlier of Vanilla.
Used in skincare, Vanilla oil is known for a rich concentration of antioxidants to promote a rejuvenated appearance. Vanilla is also known to be a mild essence with a soothing touch for the skin, further enhancing its associations with comfort and care.
CULTIVATING AND HARVESTING QUALITY VANILLA
The cultivation cycle for Vanilla is a long one, lasting for around one year from the growing and pollination stages through drying, curing, and preparing the final product for export. Beginning with growth, as climbing vines, Vanilla orchids can reach up to roughly 82 feet, attaching to tree trunks or to other such supports from which they take in water and nutrients. These vines need warm temperatures in the range of 21-32 degrees Celsius (70-90 degrees Fahrenheit) and partial sunlight to flower.
Vanilla flowers range in color from pale green to yellow or white. During the blooming season, which lasts about two months, flowers open a few at a time and last for just one day. While bees or hummingbirds take care of pollination in the wild, it requires meticulous hand pollination to cultivate quality Vanilla. This is typically done with the aid of a small wooden needle used to expose the male and female parts of the flower before manually mating them by pushing them together. Hand pollination is a skill that can take many generations to perfect. It is a painstaking process and requires intimate familiarity with the plants to anticipate when the flowers will bloom.
After flowers have been pollinated, the long capsule-like Vanilla fruits (also called beans) begin to grow, reaching a length of roughly 20 cm (about 8 inches) between 4 to 6 weeks. After achieving their full length, they may still take up to 9 months to properly mature. Once the fruits turn a golden green color at their base, they are ready to be harvested.
Immediately after harvesting, Vanilla beans are sorted, graded, and blanched in hot water. Blanching helps to clean the beans, prevents them from further ripening, and activates specific enzymes that facilitate the development of flavor and color. Once blanched, the beans are placed in containers where they are allowed to sweat (or ferment) for 36-48 hours. After the initial sweating period, the beans are subject to a process of alternating daily sun exposure and nightly sweating for a period of 5 to 15 days. During this process, enzymatic hydrolysis of vanillin precursors, phenol browning, and lipid oxidation take place, allowing the beans to acquire their signature aroma and characteristic deep brown color.
Once this process is complete, beans are transferred to racks for indoor drying that can last for several months. After this time, the highest quality beans can be recognized by a coating of fine vanillin crystals, known as givre. Vanillin is secreted by papillae in the lining of the Vanilla pod and becomes diffused over the course of the drying process through the oily liquid around the seeds. Cured pods contain about 2 percent vanillin along with a combination of oleoresin, sugar, gum, alcohols, aldehydes, and esters. Depending on the variety of the bean, slightly different organic constituents will contribute to the unique fragrance and flavor profile of the Vanilla.
HOW IS VANILLA’S ESSENCE EXTRACTED?
Vanilla oil is extracted by macerating the cured and dried vanilla beans with an alcohol solvent. This makes a simple, water-soluble Vanilla extract with a thin consistency. If the solvent is then removed from the extract, it leaves behind a semi-solid concentrate known as an oleoresin, which is much thicker in consistency and which is also generally water soluble. While Vanilla extracts are used for flavoring, oleoresins are typically used in fragrance applications. Oleoresins can be further processed with the addition of a sugar alcohol solvent to break them down. Once this solvent is removed, a fat-soluble absolute with a thick and oily consistency remains. Some Vanilla essences are produced via CO2 supercritical extraction, in which heated and pressurized CO2 gas is used to dissolve part of the plant material and to isolate the oil. Like oleoresins and absolutes, these extractions are typically used in fragrant applications; of the three types of essences, absolutes are the most expensive and as such are not as commonly used as oleoresins and CO2 extractions.
USES OF VANILLA
As a flavor, Vanilla is universal in recipes for ice creams, sweet beverages, candies and confections, cakes, pastries, and all manners of baked goods. It is likewise an ingredient in all manners of perfumes that emulate these aromas. From its origins at the base of classic Oriental fragrances to its explosion in the relatively new Gourmand genre, Vanilla is a pillar of perfumery, imparting an exquisite combination of soothing serenity and sweet sensuality to a blend. Whether in body mists or butters, lip balms or lotions, bath foams, soaps, or shampoos, the scent of Vanilla goes a long way toward luscious luxury for the sense of smell.
Most often used as a base note, Vanilla affords the novice perfumer with an open olfactory canvas, blending beautifully with a variety of fruity, floral, woody, and resinous essences to evoke a range of fragrant characters. It can be combined with Labdanum and Benzoin to make an Amber base chord redolent of Oriental and Chypre fragrances, or it can be combined with musky and woody notes for a powdery base that is nearly synonymous with classical femininity. Some of the best essences to blend with Vanilla include Bergamot, Grapefruit, Lemon, Mandarin, Orange, Sandalwood, and Vetiver, but this list is by no means exhaustive! Vanilla can bring out the best in many a blend; your own sense of smell – and sense of adventure – are your greatest guides when experimenting with Vanilla based scents.
To make a sweet vanilla spray that you can use to lend soothing energy to space, or to spray over your linens at night to help calm the mind and promote restful sleep, combine a few tablespoons of Vanilla oil with several tablespoons of ethanol and a few tablespoons of distilled water. Blend the Vanilla oil with the alcohol first, as some varieties of oil will not mix well with water unless they have been dissolved in a solubilizer first. You can also spritz this blend on your skin to keep the scent close throughout the day. You can add a few more essential oils of your choice if desired.
Vanilla oil can be added to your usual body butter, cream, or lotion to add its fine fragrance and boost the beauty benefits with some additional antioxidants and B vitamins. Used on the skin, this oil is known to help improve the appearance of acne, fine lines, and wrinkles to promote a refreshed and rejuvenated appearance. A few drops of oil in a single-use amount of your typical product should be enough.
You can also add a couple of drops of Vanilla oil to your favorite shampoo to promote shiny hair, or to a foam bath for a richly sweet infusion that will leave a lingering touch of decadence. Vanilla is also a wonderful scent to use in artisan soaps and craft candles, as its aroma blends particularly well with its fatty and waxy compositions. For an especially indulgent experience, try combining a few of these ideas – after all, what better way is there to indulge in a scent so sweet and innocent yet rich and sensual than with a sudsy bubble bath by candlelight?
IMPORTANT: All Skinsational Scents products are for external use only unless otherwise indicated. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, and it should not be used by anyone who is pregnant or under the care of a medical practitioner.