What is the origin of the vanilla flavor?
By Li Yujun

Vanilla is so common that some think its basic, average, and even boring. This might be because most of the vanilla extracts sold don't come from the vanilla flower.

The natural source of vanilla flavor is a plant of the orchid family, native to South and Central America and the Caribbean. The plant is hard to grow. Vanilla vines take at least three years to fully mature, and each flower remains open for just 24 hours a year. It is only pollinated by melipona bees and, occasionally, by hummingbirds. 

Fortunately, in 1841, Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave worker pollinated the vanilla blooms via a tiny stick. The successful hand-pollination makes vanilla plantation possible across the globe. 

But this isn't the end of the story.

Fresh vanilla pods need several months to cure and dry. They're blanched in hot water to halt fermentation and placed in large containers to sweat for 36 to 48 hours. When the pods start to change from green to brown, the aroma reveals itself. The producing process is labor-intensive and time-consuming, it takes about one year from growing and pollinating to drying and curing.

With the increasing demand for vanilla products in the 1980s, scientists synthesized artificial vanilla flavoring (Vanillin) with less expensive resources, including eugenol and lignin. Artificial substitutes are gradually overwhelming the market. 

If you don't like vanilla, maybe you just don't like the artificial vanilla flavoring. 

(All images via VCG)

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at nature@cgtn.com.)