In the last installment, I talked about real vanilla which is made from the processed seed pods of the vanilla orchid. However, there is a huge market for the cheaper and more plentiful imitation vanilla. Vanilla taste and odor can be extracted from wood! It is one of the many flavors and fragrances we get from papermaking.
Producers are looking for vanillin in the wood pulp and they extract that for artificial vanilla flavor. In addition to vanillin, another of the wood-based ingredients of that vanilla smell is “heliotropin”, a compound named after the beautiful purple flower, heliotrope. This is what produces the well loved vanilla scent.
There are other compounds which mimic the scent of real vanilla, and even outdo it for attractiveness. One of these is coumarin, a plant derivative which not only smells like a green vanilla in masstone but can be used in tasks as diverse as rat poisoning and medicine to counteract bloodclots! Coumarin is found in 42 plant, notably the tonka bean where it smells like flavored tobacco thanks to the impurities found in the bean. Tonka, by the way, used to be a very popular flavoring agent in America, but it was banned because it can cause liver disease and excess blood thinning (like a temporary hemophilia).
If you go to the store and compare the price of vanilla vs. artificial vanilla, you will see a huge difference. That is because real vanilla depends on the hand labor of a lot of workers to bring to market, and artificial vanilla has a much more automated process.
Artificial vanilla has a much less raw scent and taste than even expensive real vanilla. Flavor specilists have learned to bring out only the most attractive aspects of vanilla and leave the more character-laden parts behind. So the taste and scent have been engineered to be more attractive.
Combine that with what I consider to be a tendency to remain stronger when exposed to heat (as in baking) and it’s no wonder that artificial vanilla has become immensely popular.
Just as a challenge, get a bottle of real and a bottle of imitation vanilla and put them side by side and smell. You might be quite surprised.
Here is a tip, if you are a person who prefers to use real vanilla extract in cooking: put vanilla in at the last minute before then finish of the recipe. Let it be exposed to the least amount of heat possible and it will retain its flavor far better.