Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sweet, Yummy Vanilla!

One of our most popular oils and incense, year after year, is vanilla.

In ancient times, vanilla was associated with the Yin energies – female, soft, dark. It’s element is water and it’s ruling planet is Venus, Goddess of Love.

But wait! How can all these ancient associates be correct if vanilla is from the New World? The ancients of the old world did not know about the existence of vanilla until Cortez brought some back from his adventures.

The history of vanilla starts with the ancient Totonaco Indians of Mexico. They were the first keepers of the secrets of vanilla. They inhabited the Mazantla Valley on the Gulf Coast of Mexico near present-day Vera Cruz. According to Totonaca mythology, the tropical orchid was born when Princess Xanat, forbidden by her father from marrying a mortal, fled to the forest with her lover. The lovers were captured and beheaded. Where their blood touched the ground, the vine of the tropical orchid grew.

Vanilla was completely unknown in the Old World before Cortez. Spanish explorers arriving on the Gulf Coast of Mexico in the early 16th century gave vanilla its current name. Spanish and Portuguese sailors and explorers brought vanilla (and chololate) into Africa and Asia later that century. They called it vainilla, or "little pod".

We are often asked by patrons “Do you have vanilla essential oil?”. To which I reply “We have two very nice vanilla fragrance oils.” Most people don’t notice the switch in terminology – essential vs. fragrance. Few people ask.

There is no vanilla essential oil in the sense that we think of most essential oils. But if you get online and Google “vanilla essential oil” you will find there ARE people selling ‘vanilla essential oil’. So what is that?

I don't know about the legalities, but I'm guessing they can get away with it due to convenient vagaries in the legal code surrounding the definition of "essential oils". In fact, there actually is no regulatory standard governing the use of the term "essential oil".

However, it seems to be generally accepted that essential oils are, in large part, defined by the method with which they were extracted. More specifically, they must be either steam distilled or, in the case of citrus oils, cold pressed. The problem is, some plants, like vanilla, are too delicate and cannot withstand the heat involved in the steam distillation process. So, in order to extract the essence of these plants an alternative method must be employed. In regards to vanilla, this typically means solvent extraction or CO2 extraction.

CO2 extraction can actually yield a very high quality product. In this method, relatively cool CO2 is pressurized and pumped through the plant. When the pressure is released, the CO2 escapes as a gas, while the plant oils remain behind. There are no residues or solvents in the final product, so this is probably as close to a vanilla "essential oil" as you are going to get. However, if this is what you want, be prepared to pay for it. It is very expensive. It will likely be called an absolute, but pay close attention to the extraction method. Absolutes can be extracted with hydrocarbon solvents (like hexane).

The other common type of concentrated vanilla that is available is called an oleoresin. Oleoresins are extracted with solvents. The solvent is then removed. During this final distillation process, some of the aromatics are lost, but a strong oleoresin (as determined by a higher "fold" number) can still give a pretty good flavor and smell. Oleoresins are commonly used in the food industry to make the extracts many of us cook with. Although it seems like oleoresins would be cheaper to produce than absolutes, they often are still very expensive. At least the good ones are.

The vanilla extracts are a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia). Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican peoples cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlilxochitl by the Aztecs.

The main species harvested for vanilla is Vanilla planifolia. Although it is native to Mexico, it is now widely grown throughout the tropics. Madagascar is the world's largest producer. Additional sources include V. pompona and V. tahitiensis (grown in Tahiti and Niue), although the vanillin content of these species is much less than V. planifolia.

Though there are many compounds present in the extracts of vanilla, the compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is primarily responsible for the characteristic flavor and smell of vanilla. Another minor component of vanilla essential oil is piperonal (heliotropin). Piperonal and other substances affect the odor of natural vanilla. Vanillin was first isolated from vanilla pods by Gobley in 1858. By 1874, it had been obtained from glycosides of pine tree sap, temporarily causing a depression in the natural vanilla industry.

Vanilla essence comes in two forms. Real seedpod extract is an extremely complicated mixture of several hundred different compounds, including acetaldehyde, acetic acid, furan-2-carbaldehyde, hexanoic acid, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, 2-methoxy-4-(prop-2-en-1-yl)phenol, methyl 3-phenylprop-2-enoate, and 2-methylpropanoic acid. Synthetic essence, consisting basically of a solution of synthetic vanillin in ethanol, is derived from phenol and is of high purity.

Most artificial vanilla products, including our fragrance oils, contain vanillin, which can be produced synthetically from lignin, a natural polymer found in wood. Most synthetic vanillin is a byproduct from the pulp used in papermaking, in which the lignin is broken down using sulfites or sulfates. However, vanillin is only one of 171 identified aromatic components of real vanilla fruits.

The orchid species Leptotes bicolor is used as a natural vanilla replacement in Paraguay and southern Brazil.

So what is our Dark Vanilla and our French Vanilla?

Both are fragrance oils. This means that they are man made. Fragrances can fall under two catagories – nature identical or synthetic.

A nature identical essential oil is a blend of essential oil and various extracted aromatic compounds. A nature identical oil may also be a rectified blend of components that mimic the chemical structure of the original oil. Nature identical oils are synthetic oils, having the identical chemical build-up as the ones from the plant. Nature identical oils smell like their natural equivalents, but contain on average noticeably less ingredients. Some fragrance oils, like ‘lilac’, ‘chocolate’ or ‘apple’ are always synthetic. Others, such as ‘rose’, ‘gardenia’ or ‘honeysuckle’ are nature identicals.

Fragrance oils fall into the FDA's jurisdiction and their "trade secret" law. This means that the manufacturer of the fragrance oil does not have to disclose the ingredients used in making their fragrances. Basically you may never know what in the world is really in a fragrance oil, but they do have guidelines in place to ensure the general safety of the product.

The term French vanilla is often used to designate preparations with a strong vanilla aroma, contain vanilla grains and may also contain eggs (especially egg yolks). The appellation originates from the French style of making vanilla ice cream with a custard base, using vanilla pods, cream, and egg yolks. Inclusion of vanilla varietals from any of the former French dependencies or overseas France noted for their exports may in fact be a part of the flavoring, though it may often be coincidental. Alternatively, French vanilla is taken to refer to a vanilla-custard flavor. Syrup labeled as French vanilla may include custard, caramel or butterscotch flavors in addition to vanilla.

Our Dark Vanilla oil would be more aligned with Bourbon vanilla or Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla, produced from V. planifolia plants introduced from the Americas, is the term used for vanilla from Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, the Comoros, and Réunion, formerly the Île Bourbon. It is also used to describe the distinctive vanilla flavor derived from V. planifolia grown successfully in tropical countries such as India.

Lots of interesting information here. But the bottom line is we try to sell good smells, be they pure essential oils or fragrance oils. Since vanilla is not available as an essential oil for a price that the average person can afford, we offer our fragrance oils of vanilla for your olfactory pleasure.


Sources of information and mild plagerism.