Vanilla is an aromatic flavouring agent widely used in ice creams, bakes and candies. It is also a taste enhancer, increasing the sweetness of the dish. Vanilla is extracted from the bean of a tropical vine-like orchid, and has its name derived from the Spanish root word vaina, which means pod.
More than 250 aromatic compounds are found in vanilla, of which the main compound is vanillin. Most of the other compounds are destroyed when heated. Vanilla extract is obtained by grinding and steeping the pods in mild alcohol.
Natural vanilla is an anti-inflammatory, anti-ulcerative and analgesic herb. It contains simple and complex sugars with small amounts of B-complex vitamins; traces of essential minerals are also present in the pods.
In aromatherapy, the essential oil is administered to reduce anxiety and depression, inducing a sedative effect. In Ayurveda, vanilla is used for its anti-ulcerative properties. It is a suggested remedy for peptic disorders. A teaspoon of powdered pods are steeped in hot water and left to cool. Then the filtered decoction is consumed to get relief. However, it is not safe to consume this concoction frequently as it induces heat in the body.
Due to its soothing effect, vanilla acts as a good calming agent. A pinch of powdered vanilla bean is added to green tea to relieve headaches, nausea and anxiety caused due to motion sickness.
Vanilla is grown by hand-pollinating the orchids, making the flavouring agent an expensive commodity. Due to the excessive demand, far exceeding the production, synthetic substitutes provide a cheaper alternative for food & beverage and pharmaceutical industries.
Synthetic vanilla is obtained from chemical extracts of guaiacol and lignin, and it is interesting to know that depending on the food regulations of a country, the source for these chemicals comes from wood pulp, pine bark, petrochemicals and even coal tar! Synthetic vanilla is used by the industries for its stronger flavour, heat resistance and economic factors.