Vanilla: A Flavor From Orchids

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Like chili peppers, vanilla comes from South and Central America, as well as from the Caribbean. It is one of the thousands of orchid species.

Historians believe that the first people to cultivate it were the early dwellers on the east coast of Mexico called the Totonacs. The Totonacs were conquered by the Aztecs, who got their vanilla before being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century.

The Aztecs flavored their chocolate with vanilla and so did the Spaniards once they grew accustomed to the taste. As a result, Europeans considered vanilla to be nothing more than a flavoring for chocolate for decades. Only in the 17th century did the use of vanilla without chocolate become popular. In England, Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed sweetmeats flavored with vanilla. By the 18th century, the French were making ice cream flavored with vanilla.

Vanilla would start showing up in cookbooks in the early 19th century, as an additive to chocolate and in a recipe for vanilla ice cream. In the mid-19th century, vanilla production would spread from Mexico to other suitable environments including Madagascar and the Comoros Islands. By the end of the 19th century, the Comoros Islands were producing more than 80 percent of the world’s supply.

Its popularity would also spike dramatically in the second half of the century as it was a popular flavoring for soft drinks as well as for ice cream. Coca Cola was one of the soft drinks in which vanilla was used.

Today, the US is the world’s main vanilla consumer with Europe following. The worldwide production of vanilla varies between 1,400 and 2,300 tons. This is a relatively small amount due to the fact that harvesting and processing vanilla is complex and labor-intensive.

Flavor profile of vanilla

Vanilla offers a flavor that is mellow and highly aromatic at the same time. The flavor is typically described as being fruity and sweet with woody and smoky notes.

Health benefits of vanilla

Vanilla has a number of properties that make it beneficial for health; these properties include:

  • It is antimicrobial: Vanillin is the main chemical component of vanilla and has been shown to be effective against microbes including E Coli and Listeria. Vanillin interferes with the signal molecules that bacteria use to coordinate their behavior when forming biofilms.
  • It contains antioxidants: The vanillin in vanilla contains antioxidants that have been shown to protect against oxidation in much the same way as vitamin C.

Vanilla can help you to treat or prevent a variety of health conditions that include:

  • Cancer: The antioxidants in vanilla scavenge free radicals thus helping to prevent or slow the progression of diseases including cancer.
  • Heart disease: Research has shown that vanillin can reduce the cholesterol levels in rats. High cholesterol is one of the factors in heart disease.
  • Depression: Vanillin is thought to be effective in combating depression. This benefit may be the result of its antioxidant effects. Vanillin also stimulates adrenergic receptors and this can have antidepressant effects.
  • Inflammatory diseases: The antioxidants in vanilla make it effective for treating inflammatory diseases like gout and arthritis. In addition, its anti-inflammatory effects extend to protecting the liver.

Common uses of vanilla

Vanilla is used primarily in sweet foods and beverages. It enhances cakes, custards and ice cream. In addition to the desserts and drinks in which it plays a starring role, its flavor notes can be detected in the background of most chocolate-flavored food items.