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Medically reviewed on July 16, 2018

Scientific Name(s): Vanilla planifolia Andr. Family: Orchidaceae

Common Name(s): Bourbon vanilla , flat-leaved vanilla , Mexican vanilla , Tahitian vanilla , vanilla , vanillon


Clinical trials are lacking; however, antimicrobial, antioxidant, antimutagenic, and anti-sickle cell effects have been studied. Vanilla has been used widely in food as a flavoring agent.


There have been limited clinical studies to support a therapeutic role for vanilla. In a study in sickle cell disease, vanillin 1 g daily was given in divided doses over 40 days.


Contraindications have not yet been identified.


Generally recognized as safe when used as food. Avoid dosages higher than those found in food because safety and efficacy are unproven.


None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Some allergenic properties have been associated with vanilla.


Research reveals little or no information regarding toxicology with the use of this product.


The vanilla plant ( V. planifolia Andr. [synonymous with Vanilla fragrans Ames, Vanilla tahitensis J.W. Moore, and Vanilla pompon Scheide.]) is a perennial herbaceous tropical climbing vine that grows to 25 m in the wild and can produce fruit for 30 to 40 years. It is native to Mesoamerica, a region that includes parts of modern day Mexico, where it grows abundantly. V. planifolia is cultivated in tropical areas of the Indian Ocean, including on the islands of Reunion and Madagascar, which produces approximately 80% of the world's supply. The fully grown unripe fruit (the bean or pod) is collected and subjected to a complicated and labor-intensive fermentation process; together with the drying stage, this curing process requires 5 to 6 months to complete. During this time, vanillin is produced by the enzymatic conversion of glucovanillin within the bean. Vanillin may accumulate as white crystals on the bean surface, giving it a frosted appearance. 1 , 2 , 3


Vanilla has a long history of use as a food flavoring and fragrance. Spanish explorers first introduced vanilla to Europe in the early 1500s. Although the vanillin constituent is often used in bulk food preparation, it cannot be readily substituted for the natural extract when the delicate fragrance of the pure extractive is desired. Vanilla has traditionally been used as an aphrodisiac, carminative, antipyretic, and stimulant, and in the treatment of fever, spasm, dysmenorrhea, and hysteria. It has been added to foods to reduce the amount of sugar needed for sweetening and is said to curb the development of dental caries. 4 , 5


The quality of the vanilla bean is not dependent on the vanillin content even though vanillin is associated with the characteristic fragrance of the plant. Numerous other constituents characterize the flavor and quality of vanilla and its extracts.

Vanilla beans contain approximately 1% to 2% vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde), the major flavor component. Other major constituents are vanillic acid and p-hydroxybenzoic aldehyde. However, more than 200 other minor components contribute to the full-bodied fragrance of natural vanilla. Tannins, polyphenols, free amino acids, and resins have been described from the plant. Aromatic compounds found in the leaves and stems have also been identified.

Vanillin content differs with the variety of the bean, with Bourbon beans containing higher amounts than Mexican and Tahitian beans. Green vanilla pods have no flavor; enzymatic changes produce the flavor during curing and processing. Vanilla extracts are prepared by percolating ground vanilla bean with an alcohol/water mixture. Because synthetically-produced vanillin can be obtained inexpensively, it is often used as a substitute or adulterant for natural vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract accounts for approximately 6% of the market for vanilla flavoring. Vanilla extract produced by biotechnological methods of plant culturing have yielded good grades of natural vanilla. Methods for the analysis of natural vanilla and biosynthetic vanillin have been published. 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 , 12

Uses and Pharmacology


Antibacterial and antifungal actions have been demonstrated in vitro for vanilla and vanillin, suggesting a role in food preservation. 5 , 13


High pressure liquid chromatography studies and in vitro experiments show antioxidant activity primarily for vanillin, but also for naturally derived vanilla. 11 , 14 , 15 , 16 , 17


An antisickling effect has been demonstrated for vanillin in vitro in animal experiments and limited clinical studies. In mice, increased survival in hypoxic conditions and a decrease in the percentage of sickle cells was shown, while in a clinical study, vanillin 1 g daily produced measurable antisickling effects. 18 , 19 , 20


Vanillin may exert antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic activity by inhibiting a DNA repair process leading to the production of mutagenic cells. Antioxidant action may also contribute to this effect. The ability to suppress phototoxic DNA damage, as well as potentiate cisplatin cytotoxicity, has also been demonstrated in vitro. Clinical studies are lacking. 15 , 16 , 17 , 21 , 22


In controlled studies, meals flavored with vanilla provide a greater degree of satiety relative to nutritionally identical unflavored meals. 23 , 24

Aromatic compounds elucidated from vanilla are toxic to mosquito larvae. 10

Vanillin may have hypolipidemic activity. 5


There have been limited clinical studies to support a therapeutic role for vanilla.

In a study in sickle cell disease, vanillin 1 g daily was given in divided doses for 40 days. 20 Because vanillin is metabolized rapidly in the upper digestive tract, oral dosing is undesirable for use in clinical trials. A prodrug has been developed. 19


Generally recognized as safe when used as food. Avoid dosages above those found in food because safety and efficacy are unproven.


None well documented.

Adverse Reactions

Although allergenic properties have been associated with vanilla, they do not appear to be related to the vanillin component of the plant. Rather, dermatitis may be caused by calcium oxalate crystals in the plant. Workers preparing vanilla have reported headache, dermatitis, and insomnia, which together have been characterized as a syndrome known as vanillism. 3 , 4

In a survey of ingredients in prescription and nonprescription health care products, vanilla was the second most common flavoring superseded only by cherry, suggesting that people with a known hypersensitivity to vanilla extract should be vigilant to the widespread use of this flavoring in pharmaceuticals. 25


Research reveals little or no information regarding toxicology with the use of this product.


1. Vanilla planifolia . USDA, NRCS. 2007. The PLANTS Database ( , January 2010). National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
2. Evans WC. Trease and Evans' Pharmacognosy . 13th ed. London: Balliere-Tindall; 1989.
3. Leung AY. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics . New York, NY: Wiley; 1980.
4. Duke JA. Handbook of Medicinal Herbs . Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 1985.
5. Sinha AK, Sharma UK, Sharma N. A comprehensive review on vanilla flavor: extraction, isolation and quantification of vanillin and others constituents. Int J Food Sci Nutr . 2008;59(4):299-326.
6. Negishi O, Sugiura K, Negishi Y. Biosynthesis of vanillin via ferulic acid in Vanilla planifolia . J Agric Food Chem . 2009;57(21):9956-9961.
7. Walton NJ, Mayer MJ, Narbad A. Vanillin. Phytochemistry . 2003;63(5):505-515.
8. Sharma UK, Sharma N, Sinha AK, Kumar N, Gupta AP. Ultrafast UPLC-ESI-MS and HPLC with monolithic column for determination of principal flavor compounds in vanilla pods. J Sep Sci . 2009;32(20):3425-3431.
9. Schwarz B, Hofmann T. Identification of novel orosensory active molecules in cured vanilla Beans ( Vanilla planifolia ). J Agric Food Chem . 2009;57(9):3729-3737.
10. Sun R, Sacalis JN, Chin CK, Still CC. Bioactive aromatic compounds from leaves and stems of Vanilla fragrans . J Agric Food Chem . 2001;49(11):5161-5164.
11. Teissedre PL, Waterhouse AL. Inhibition of oxidation of human low-density lipoproteins by phenolic substances in different essential oils varieties. J Agric Food Chem . 2000;48(9):3801-3805.
12. Palama TL, Khatib A, Choi YH, et al. Metabolic changes in different developmental stages of Vanilla planifolia pods. J Agric Food Chem . 2009;57(17):7651-7658.
13. Choo JH, Rukayadi Y, Hwang JK. Inhibition of bacterial quorum sensing by vanilla extract. Lett Appl Microbiol . 2006;42(6):637-641.
14. Shyamala BN, Naidu MM, Sulochanamma G, Srinivas P. Studies on the antioxidant activities of natural vanilla extract and its constituent compounds through in vitro models. J Agric Food Chem . 2007;55(19):7738-7743.
15. Kumar SS, Ghosh A, Devasagayam TP, Chauhan PS. Effect of vanillin on methylene blue plus light-induced single-strand breaks in plasmid pBR322 DNA. Mutat Res . 2000;469(2):207-214.
16. Kumar SS, Priyadarsini KI, Sainis KB. Inhibition of peroxynitrite–mediated reactions by vanillin. J Agric Food Chem . 2004;52(1):139-145.
17. Kamat JP, Ghosh A, Devasagayam TP. Vanillin as an antioxidant in rat liver mitochondria: inhibition of protein oxidation and lipid peroxidation induced by photosensitization. Mol Cell Biochem . 2000;209(1-2):47-53.
18. Abraham DJ, Mehanna AS, Wireko FC, Whitney J, Thomas RP, Orringer EP. Vanillin, a potential agent for the treatment of sickle cell anemia. Blood . 1991;77(6):1334-1341.
19. Zhang C, Li X, Lian L, et al. Anti-sickling effect of MX-1520, a prodrug of vanillin: an in vivo study using rodents. Br J Haematol . 2004;125(6):788-795.
20. García AF, Cabal C, Losada J, Alvarez E, Soler C, Otero J. In vivo action of Vanillin on delay time determined by magnetic relaxation. Hemoglobin . 2005;29(3):181-187.
21. Durant S, Karran P. Vanillins—a novel family of DNA-PK inhibitors. Nucleic Acids Res . 2003;31(19):5501-5512.
22. Gustafson DL, Franz HR, Ueno AM, Smith CJ, Doolittle DJ, Waldren CA. Vanillin (3-methoxy-4-hydroxybenzaldehyde) inhibits mutation induced by hydrogen peroxide, N-methyl-N-nitrosoguanidine and mitomycin C but not (137)Cs gamma-radiation at the CD59 locus in human-hamster hybrid A(L) cells. Mutagenesis . 2000;15(3):207-213.
23. Warwick ZS, Hall WG, Pappas TN, Schiffman SS. Taste and smell sensations enhance the satiating effect of both a high-carbohydrate and a high-fat meal in humans. Physiol Behav . 1993;53(3):553-563.
24. Brondel L, Romer M, Van Wymelbeke V, et al. Variety enhances food intake in humans: role of sensory-specific satiety. Physiol Behav . 2009;97(1):44-51.
25. Kumar A, Rawlings RD, Beaman DC. The mystery ingredients: sweeteners, flavorings, dyes, and preservatives in analgesic/antipyretic, antihistamine/decongestant, cough and cold, antidiarrheal, and liquid theophylline preparations. Pediatrics . 1993;91(5):927-933.

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