Have you ever wondered if the vanilla spiced products you've been consuming are actually made from natural vanilla or not? Well, chances are high they're from synthetic vanilla.
Food and beverage manufacturers are facing disappointments as vanilla price hit record levels due to uncertainty about this year's pods from the world's largest grower Madagascar.
Prices for vanilla increased to $600 for a kg in 2017 after the tropical island was hit by a cyclone, leaving buyers with fewer suppliers of the world's second most expensive spice, vanilla extract. The prices came down to $550 a kilo towards the year ending, with hopes of enough harvest this year, but the predictions have been proved to be wrong. The price is back at $600 following uncertainty over vanilla produce.
Based on the current vanilla price, the spice is more expensive than silver, which is currently at just $530 for a kilo. Fluctuations from vanilla pod production in Madagascar regularly affect the world's vanilla price as the country supplies between 75 to 80% of the world's vanilla beans, with Indonesia and India growing very small quantities. This market struggle and price hikes are not what all four manufacturers can handle, mostly the small scale ice cream and cake makers. Madagascan government which earns about 40% of the country's fortune had made efforts to regulate vanilla prices, but that discouraged buyers until around 2013. How are the food makers providing vanilla flavors?
Synthetic vanilla controls over 95% of the sweet flavor
In 1874, German chemists Wilhelm Haarmann and Ferdinand Tiemann found the first vanilla alternative by using chemical compounds from coal. It became a huge innovation, creating a positive idea that vanilla could actually be produced without the beans. And by the 1930s, synthetic vanilla became the most used source in the U.S., with some of them derived from coal tar.
However, coal tar-derived vanilla is no longer widely used in the U.S. due to health problems associated with the source. Vanilla flavors derived from coal tar were found to be carcinogenic; exposes consumers to cancer risks. But in some countries with few food regulations, vanilla flavors sourced from petroleum products are still being used to flavor foods.
The U.S. law has regulation for only natural vanilla. FDA requires a minimum of 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans in addition to 35% alcohol before a product is labeled natural. However, that doesn't stop manufacturers from using synthetic vanilla as long as they would label their brands "artificial" vanilla.
Other sources of synthetic vanilla include cow poop, cinnamon, pine bark, paper waste, etc. Coal tar is not the only source nowadays. Artificial vanilla prices are so cheap compared to those extracted from vanilla beans making the demand for artificial vanilla over 35 times more than the natural vanilla extract. Most food makers would still include the picture of vanilla beans on their products even when the flavor is not derived from vanilla beans.
Last year, some small-scale ice cream makers were forced to stop production as they could no longer afford vanilla beans supplies, while others switched to artificial vanilla or increase product prices.
Only 1% of the vanilla extracts used in our foods and cosmetics are actually derived from vanilla beans. Unilever and Nestle are among the food makers that have pledged to use natural vanilla in their products.