Natural vanilla extract is said to do everything from repel bugs to promote wound healing. It tastes good, too! So why is it so expensive right now?
With hot summer weather looming, and beach trips beckoning, you might be dreaming of a creamy vanilla ice cream cone or shake.
Before you buy, you might check the price. The price of natural vanilla extract has, well, skyrocketed is too pale a description.
According to Food Business News, in February 2017 manufacturers of everything from ice cream to cosmetics were paying ten times the price for natural vanilla beans as in 2012.
(When I checked for pure vanilla extract at Smart & Final earlier this month, there was empty shelf above a tag identifying the space as where bottles of vanilla should be. A handwritten note instructed customers to ask the staff about it.)
The last time prices were so high was after a tropical cyclone destroyed a good portion of the crop. Prices crashed as world demand fell off a cliff.
Reports earlier this year from Madagascar growing fields, which produce three-quarters of the world’s supply, were hopeful of a good harvest in 2017.
But that was before tropical cyclone Enawo blew a good chunk of the crop to bits in March, shredding up to 30% of the island’s vanilla output. Although growers are expected to harvest what survived the winds, Josephine Lochhead, President of Cooks Flavoring Company, expects the quality to be poor and prices to be high:
Past experience provides some guidance on what to expect. In April 2000, Cyclone Hudah hit the SAVA of Madagascar causing similar destruction. Vanilla on the vine during Hudah was processed and sold as “hurricane vanilla.” We expect the same to happen this year. The quality of this vanilla will be VERY poor. It’s equivalent to harvesting California wine grapes in May instead of September. All flavor in the vanilla bean is developed in its last 3-4 months on the vine (March, April, May and June in Madagascar). The vanilla bean may be at full weight and size at 5 months, but the last 4 months are the most critical because the bean is ripening and developing its flavor components.
The cyclone has inflamed an already very volatile market. Global supplies were already tight and prices were at a record high. All hopes were focused on a large, healthy crop expected in Madagascar, producer of 80% of the world’s vanilla supply. The effects of ENAWO on the vanilla market will be extreme. There will simply not be enough vanilla to meet the world demand.
She also warns of poor quality beans being mixed in to cut the price. The label can still legally read “all natural” but the extract will taste worse than good quality artificial vanillin.
A little bit of vanilla history and horticulture
As amazing as it seems, vanilla beans grow on orchid vines. Of the two varieties, Vanilla planifolia (Bourbon) or Vanilla tahensis (Tahitian), you can thank the Aztecs for discovering the planifolia variety now under worldwide cultivation. According to Cook’s, Indonesian vanilla beans have little flavor and should be avoided.
(Thank the Aztecs for chocolate, too.)
The Vanilla orchid flowers once every year. Once. In the morning, on a single day. You gotta make Vanilla beans while the orchid blooms.
The kicker is that in its native Mexico, the Vanilla orchid is pollinated by the Melipona bee, native to Mexico. If there’s no Melipona bee, you get no vanilla beans.
Unless you take things into your own hands, and pollinate each Vanilla orchid flower by hand.
That’s what they do in Madagascar and India. (Mexican Vanilla beans are produced the old-fashioned way, with the help of Melipona bees.
The yield per plant starts at about half a pound at first harvest (about three years after planting) and may get as high as 2200 pounds once the plant is fully mature. At current prices, that means $40 to $176,000 revenue per plant for the grower. Properly processing the vanilla beans is a long, arduous, hands-on process. The cost is correspondingly high for properly cured beans: currently almost $1000 per pound.
That’s unsustainable because there are alternatives. You may sneer at artificial vanillin, but it’s a whale of a lot cheaper!
Other uses of vanilla
The fresh heart-warming scent of vanilla is found in more than cupcakes and ice creams.
It is also used, for instance, in the manufacture of skin care products:
Organic vanilla bean extract is anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial, helping to soothe and calm irritated skin and encourage wound healing. It also contains polyphenols with anti-oxidant properties and B Vitamins.
Health.com lists four uses for vanilla besides flavoring foods and drinks:
- hunger buster;
- air freshener;
- skin care;
- mosquito repellent.
So spritz yourself to stay safe from Zika and West Nile Virus! (Also police your property to remove sources of standing water that provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes.)
Reader’s Digest notes vanilla’s air freshening, bug repelling, and skin rejuvenating powers while adding that vanilla extract can help with minor burns.
StyleCraze adds a passel of examples of how vanilla can help your skin, then throws in hair care, fighting anxiety and nausea, promoting weight loss, eliminating impotency, regulating menstruation, and increasing anti-oxidants.
At current stratospheric prices, you might want to keep these “extras” in your pocket until the price of vanilla returns to earth.