Thanks to advancements in flavor technology, the modern consumer can now enjoy thousands of unique flavors in food and beverages of all types—but that wasn’t always the case. Consumers owe a lot to the discovery of the world’s first artificial flavor, which became a necessary step toward creating the multitude of flavor experiences possible today.
Sometimes dismissed as a “plain” or “common” flavor among the sea of options available now, vanillin—the major flavor component of vanilla—is a global favorite. Consumers often take this flavor for granted, unaware of its role in adding an aromatic, brown note to everything from sauces and sweet treats to coffee, sodas, and aged spirits.
The discovery of vanillin and development of artificial vanilla flavoring is partially responsible for the creation of all the artificial and natural flavors we find at the tip of our taste buds—so what’s its origin story? And why has vanilla continued to be so popular today?
From Ancient Ingredient To Commercial Commodity
The first record of vanilla consumption occurs in the 16th century, when the Aztecs used it to flavor chocolate. Enjoyed by the European aristocracy of the 1800s, vanilla quickly became a valuable commodity inaccessible to the common folk of the time.
Part of the reason for this is because of the laborious process involved in harvesting the plant. If you don’t already know, natural vanilla beans are collected from the vanilla orchid (or Vanilla Planifolia) which opens only one day a year—if it does not pollinate during that time, then no vanilla bean is produced.
Until the early 1840s, the vanilla orchid could only be cultivated in its native southeastern Mexico, which is home to its pollinator, the Melipona bee. This changed when Edmond Albius, an enslaved 12-year-old worker in the French colony of Réunion discovered how to hand-pollinate the flower by pressing the plant’s pollen-coated anther to its stigma using a stick.
Using his method, cultivation was able to expand and thrive in nearby Madagascar, which remains responsible for producing about 80 percent of the world’s natural vanilla. Even so, you might be surprised to learn that less than one percent of vanilla flavor comes from its natural source and the little that does is wildly expensive. In fact, after saffron, vanilla is the world’s second most expensive spice. In the mid-1990s, vanilla sold for $9 a pound—today’s cost? Nearly $115 per pound.
Price aside, there is also availability to consider: there is simply not enough vanilla beans in the world to meet current demand. Thankfully, there is another way to enjoy the profile without paying the hefty price of the real stuff.
Artificial Vanilla Changes The World
Today we know that vanilla is a surprisingly complex spice containing between 250 and 500 different flavor and aroma compounds. The most prominent of these is vanillin.
In 1858, French biochemist Nicolas-Theodore Gobley found a way to isolate vanillin by crystalizing it from vanilla extract. This was a critical first step in developing the field of flavor technology which, at the time, was practically non-existent. Later, in 1874, German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann determined the structure of vanillin and successfully synthesized it from coniferin—a component of pine bark. This discovery was another significant milestone for the field, paving the way for the development and manufacturing of artificial vanilla—the world’s first synthetic flavor.
With growing availability, the 20th century saw an explosive rise in demand for natural vanilla bean and artificial vanillin in the US. This was met with passage of the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906, which protected consumers from fraud and health hazards, introducing the nation’s first regulatory distinction between “genuine” and “imitation” foods. According to the ruling, “genuine” vanilla products were required to contain some derivative of vanilla bean, whereas artificial vanillin products had to be labeled “imitation” despite being more “chemically pure” than vanilla bean extracts diluted with other materials, as many were at the time.
The modern definition of artificial flavors comes from the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), revised as of April 1, 2020:
“The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof.”
Simply put, artificial flavors are additives designed to mimic the taste of natural ingredients. They are a cost-efficient way for manufacturers to make something taste like vanilla, for example, without actually using any real vanilla; and remember—the compounds used to produce artificial flavors are almost identical to those that occur naturally.
Flavor science has come a long way since the invention of artificial vanilla in the mid-19th century. Using a combination of artificial and natural flavors, flavorists can now create any type of flavor profile you can imagine. Flavored beverages continue to be one of the best ways consumers can enjoy their favorite flavors—and try new profiles that would otherwise be a rarity to enjoy. That’s something we can all raise a glass to!
If you’ve got an idea for a great drink, the beverage development experts at Flavorman can help you bring it to life! Just fill out this web form or give us a call at (502) 273-5214 to get started.