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For other uses, see vanilla (disambiguation).

Vanilla is either a genus of orchid or the flavoring, in its pure form known as vanillin, derived from that orchid. The name came from the Spanish word "vainilla", diminutive form of "vaina" (meaning "sheath"), which is in turn derived from Latin "vagina".

Table of contents
1 Vanilla flavoring
2 Vanilla genus
3 External links

Vanilla flavoring

Vanilla is a flavouring essence prepared from the seed-pods of Vanilla orchids. The species harvested for vanillin (there are in fact several) is mainly Vanilla planifolia. It is a native of Mexico, though now widely grown throughout the tropics. Additional sources include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis.


Though there are many compounds present in the extracts of vanilla, the compound predominantly responsible for the characteristic flavour and smell of vanilla is known as vanillin.

Vanilla essence comes in two forms: the actual extract of the seedpods, and the far cheaper synthetic essence, basically consisting of a solution of synthetic vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde):

Natural vanilla is an extremely complicated mixture of several hundred different compounds, versus synthetic vanillin which is derived from methanol and is of high purity. However, it may be difficult to determine the difference between natural and synthetic vanilla flavoring.


Vanilla flavor in creams, cakes and other foodstuff may be achieved by adding some vanilla essence or by cooking vanilla beans in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the beans are split in two; in this case, the innards of the beans, consisting of flavory tiny black grains, are mixed into the preparation.

Good quality vanilla has a strong aromatic flavor, but foodstuffs with small amounts of low quality vanilla or artificial vanilla-like flavorings are far more common.

One major use of vanilla is in flavouring ice cream: the most common, and thus "default", flavour of ice cream is vanilla.

By analogy, the term is used, often as "plain vanilla", in computing for default set up of a system, with no extras or modifications. Since "plain vanilla" ice creams are often almost tasteless, the term "French vanilla" is often used to designate preparations that actually have a strong vanilla aroma, and possibly contain vanilla grains.


Vanilla was a well regarded flavoring in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and was brought back to Europe (and from there the rest of the world) by the Spanish Conquistadors.

In ancient Mexico the Totonac people were regarded as the producers of the best vanilla. They continued to be the world's chief producers of the flavoring through the mid 19th century. At that time, French vanilla growers in Mexico traded their knowledge of artificial insemination of flowers for the Totonac knowledge of preparing the beans.

Some connoisseurs still regard the Totonac vanilla as the best. Such is sometimes marketed in gourmet food stores as "Mexican vanilla", although Mexico also produces low quality vanilla that sometimes shares this label.

Coca-Cola Corporation is the world's largest customer of natural vanilla extract. When New Coke was introduced in 1984, the economy of Madagascar crashed, and only recovered after New Coke flopped. The reason was that New Coke uses vanillin, a less-expensive synthetic substitute, and purchases of vanilla more than halved during this period. By 2002, the company introduced Vanilla Coke which is Coca-Cola with vanilla flavor.

Vanilla genus

Scientific classification
Family: Orchidaceae
Genus: Vanilla

Most of this genus of one hundred and ten species of vine-like plants have quite large and attractive flowers of green or cream, mostly with a sweet scent.

The leaves of the vanilla are thick and leathery, even fleshy in some species, though there are a significant number of species that have become nearly or totally leafless and appear to use their green climbing stems for photosynthesis.

Species of the genus Vanilla

(family Orchidaceae, subfamily Orchidoideae or Epidendroideae, tribe Epidendreae or Vanilleae, subtribe Vanillinae) The genus was published by J. Miller in 1754.

External links