A Brief History of Vanilla
Vanilla’s history as a flavoring dates back to the ancient Mayans, who used vanilla along with cacao and other spices to make a thick, frothy cocoa beverage. The wild orchids that produced the fruit we refer to as vanilla beans were eventually cultivated. By the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the vanilla crop was an integral part of the local economy.
The conquistadors introduced vanilla (and cacao) to Europe in the early 1500s. Ironically, for the next three hundred years, these beautiful orchids planted in gardens throughout England and France would not produce any fruit. Ultimately, it was discovered that Europe lacked the plant’s natural pollinator. To this day, hand pollination is required to grow vanilla beans.
Today, approximately 80 percent of the world's vanilla supply is grown in Madagascar, with additional sources of vanilla being Mexico and Tahiti.
How Vanilla Is Used Today
Vanilla is a highly versatile flavor that works well as a characterizing flavor and in pairings with other flavors—especially chocolate, coffee, maple, honey, and nuts. Besides sweet brown notes, vanilla can be used with fruit flavors like coconut, cherry, raspberry, and banana, as well as herbs and spices such as lavender and cardamom. A lesser-known use of vanilla is to enhance the flavor of meat and vegetable dishes, typically via sauces or seasonings.
While dairy desserts, sweet baked goods, and beverages are some of the top applications for vanilla flavor, it can be found in a wide variety of products. Products that use vanilla flavor include:
- Ice cream, milkshakes, and whipped cream
- Plant-based milks and ice cream
- Yogurt and pudding
- Cakes and pastries
- Frosting, icing, and pastry fillings
- Breakfast cereals and snack bars
- Sports protein bars, powders, and RTD beverages
- Hot cocoa, teas, and coffees
- Soft drinks, energy drinks, and flavored waters
- Alcoholic beverages
- Tomato and barbecue sauces
- Meat rubs and seasonings