As a flavor, vanilla gets a bad reputation. It's the world we use to denote the basic, the assumed, the given option. But it wasn't always that way. Before the late 19th century, when German chemists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann created synthetic vanillin — the compound that tells our brain we're tasting vanilla — vanilla was a rare, luxury flavor. At MOFAD Lab, curators tell the story of how this volatile, expensive ingredient became one of the most common synthetic flavors on earth — and gave rise to the modern flavor industry.
Vanilla pods grow on orchids indigenous to Mexico. A key element in the grown of these orchids is pollination by the local Melipona bee. It's this step in vanilla cultivation that stumped Europeans for hundreds of years. Would-be vanilla farmers attempted to grow it across the continent and in European powers' many colonies around the world. Finally in 1841 Edmond Albius — a slave on the French island of Réunion (then Île Bourbon) — discovered a method for hand-pollinating the plant. Suddenly, colonists were able to cultivate the plant across tropical regions.
"It's a very important turning point in the history and development of the flavor," says MOFAD program director Emma Boast. The ability to cultivate vanilla didn't necessary bring the price down to accessible levels, but it did allow the flavor to gain popularity. It was only a matter of time before Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Harman synthesized the flavor compound.
Vanillin is purely a one-note flavor experience.
While vanillin is enough to make us think we're tasting vanilla, the natural stuff is far more complex. Vanillin is found in natural vanilla beans along with countless additional chemicals that very by region. Think of vanilla as a wine. The terroir, climate, and geography all impact the flavor and its something scientists can't create in a lab. "Vanilla grown in Mexico tastes different than vanilla grown in Madagascar," Boast says. "You get more chemicals when you consume vanilla extract and it's more complex for that reason, while vanillin is purely a one-note flavor experience."
Even on a mass-produced scale, the intimate flavor differences between synthetic vanillin and natural vanilla extract are detectable. According to Boast, Coca-Cola once tried to change their formula to include vanillin rather than vanilla, to avoid the natural vanilla's volatile price shifts. "Consumers could tell the difference and demanded that it be changed back to vanilla extract," Boast says.
While the chemical synthesis process allows for everything from paper pulp to petrochemicals to act as a starting point for vanillin, nothing apparently quite compares to the real thing.