Scientific Name(s): Vanilla planifolia Andr.
Common Name(s): Bourbon vanilla, Flat-leaved vanilla, Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, Vanilla, Vanillon
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.PLANTS 2010, Evans 1989, Leung 1980
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.Duke 1985, Sinha 2008
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.Sinha 2008, Negishi 2009, Walton 2003, Sharma 2009, Schwarz 2009, Sun 2001, Teissedre 2000, Palama 2009, Anuradha2013
Uses and Pharmacology
Antibacterial and antifungal actions have been demonstrated in vitro for vanilla and vanillin, suggesting a role in food preservation.Sinha 2008, Choo 2006, Anuradha 2013 Aromatic compounds elucidated from vanilla are toxic to mosquito larvae.Sun 2001
An antisickling effect has been demonstrated for vanillin. In mice, increased survival in hypoxic conditions and a decrease in the percentage of sickle cells was shown, while in a small clinical study, vanillin 1 g daily produced measurable antisickling effects.Abraham 1991, Zhang 2004, García 2005
In vitro and animal data
Vanillin may exert antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic activity by inhibiting a DNA repair process leading to the production of mutagenic cells. Antioxidant actionShyamala 2007, Kamat 2000 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.Kumar 2000, Kumar 2004, Kamat 2000, Durant 2003, Gustafson 2000
Research reveals no clinical studies regarding the use of vanilla in cancer.
Vanillin may have hypolipidemic activity.Sinha 2008
The odor of vanilla had no impact on response by infants to painful stimulus in a clinical study.Romantsik 2014
There are no clinical studies to provide therapeutic dosage guidance for vanilla.
In a study in sickle cell disease, vanillin 1 g daily was given in divided doses for 40 days.García 2005 Because vanillin is metabolized rapidly in the upper digestive tract, oral dosing is undesirable for use in clinical trials. A prodrug has been developed.Zhang 2004
Pregnancy / Lactation
Generally recognized as safe when used as food. Avoid dosages above those found in food because safety and efficacy are unproven.
None well documented.
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.Leung 1980, Duke 1985
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.Kumar 1993
Research reveals little or no information regarding toxicology with the use of this product.
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