Most people should be familiar with vanilla. After all, it sees so much use in such a wide range of foods and beverages that vanilla has become synonymous with “conventional.” As such, it might not be particularly exciting. However, its use in this context should make it clear that it is popular to an extent that most flavorings can never hope to match. Having said that, while most people should be familiar with vanilla to some extent, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a clear idea of where it comes from.
For those who are unfamiliar, vanilla comes from the vanilla orchids that are native to Mesoamerica. As a result, the Mesoamerican peoples were the first to cultivate the vines on which vanilla orchids blossom, with the Totonacs on the east coast of what is now Mexico being the foremost among their numbers. Due to this, the Aztecs picked up a taste for vanilla when they conquered the Totonacs, which in turn, means that the Spanish picked up a taste for vanilla when they conquered the Aztecs. In other words, the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés can claim credit for introducing not just chocolate but also vanilla to Europeans, which actually makes a fair amount of sense because the Aztecs used vanilla as an additive for their chocolate. A practice that the Europeans followed for some time.
As for how vanilla is made, the answer is that vanilla orchids once pollinated can produce fruits, which can be treated to produce the vanilla extract that has managed to carve out such a powerful position for itself in such a wide range of cuisines. Of course, there is also artificial vanilla extract that sees frequent use, which consists of synthetic vanillin that can be made using materials such as coal tar, fermented bran, and wood pulp waste.
Why Is Vanilla So Expensive?
Real vanilla extract is very expensive for a number of reasons:
Expensive and Time-Consuming Production Process
Simply put, vanilla is expensive because its production process is expensive from start to finish. First, it wasn’t until 1841 that people managed to get vanilla orchids to grow their fruits outside of their native environment in spite of the fact that vanilla had already been in high demand for some time. However, this wasn’t because vanilla orchids are particularly delicate plants. Instead, this was because of pollination issues. In short, vanilla orchids blossom for just 24 hours, during which they must be pollinated by either the melipona bees or the hummingbirds that can be found in their native environment. Otherwise, the flowers will die and drop to the ground, thus resulting in no fruit. Unfortunately, the solution found for this particular problem involves pollination by hand, which is a very labor-intensive process to say the least.
On top of this, it should be mentioned that the fruits of the vanilla vine take nine months to ripen. After which, laborers have to pick them by hand before putting them through a long and complicated curing process. The result is wonderful, but considering the sheer number of steps involved in the production process, it is no wonder that vanilla is one of the most expensive spices that can be found on the planet, so much so that it is beaten out by saffron and nothing but saffron.
Lack of Grower Enthusiasm
Vanilla is expensive. As a result, interested individuals might think that there would be regions flocking to plant more vanilla orchids for the purpose of producing more vanilla. However, there are complicating factors that make this too simplistic. First, since it takes nine months for the fruits of vanilla orchids to ripen, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that it takes some time for vanilla orchids to start producing flowers and fruits. To be exact, it takes three years for cuttings to grow enough to start producing flowers and fruits. As a result, people who choose to grow vanilla can’t expect much income during that period, meaning that they need to be prepared to commit to the long run as well as have the resources necessary to sustain themselves for the time being.
Second, people who choose to grow vanilla are betting that the price of vanilla will remain high for the foreseeable future, thus making their effort worthwhile. Currently, vanilla prices are very high because of the interest in “natural food,” which has brought about a huge surge in demand for real vanilla extract rather than artificial vanilla extract. However, there is no guarantee that this will remain the case for however long it will take for vanilla growers to make a profit on their efforts, particularly since there are two additional factors to keep in mind. One, whether they enter or not, there will be others who will enter the market as producers, meaning that the vanilla prices of the present won’t be the same as the vanilla prices of the future. Two, while artificial vanilla extract might not be particularly glamorous, it is at least 20 times cheaper while still being real vanillin.
Third, high vanilla prices have created some serious security concerns for vanilla growers. In short, there are people who steal the fruits of vanilla orchids before mixing them in with the fruits of vanilla orchids purchased using legitimate channels, thus making it difficult for the customers to pick up on the signs of theft when they proceed to sell the mix further on. The problem has become so bad that some vanilla growers have started branding their fruits to make it clear where they came from, while others have started picking them before they can fully ripen, which serves to protect their valuable crops but at the cost of producing poorer quality vanilla.
Low Production Volumes
Finally, the complications of vanilla production mean that there aren’t a lot of places that grow vanilla. As a result, when these places get hit by some kind of disruption, the result is a sudden, sharp fall in supply because of the producers that have been taken out of business. For proof, look no further than how cyclone Enawo sent vanilla prices skyrocketing when it hit Madagascar where 80 percent of the world’s entire vanilla supply was produced. Even worse, the time needed for a vanilla orchid to mature means that recovering from such hits can be time-consuming to say the least, meaning that such supply disruptions can have long-lasting consequences.