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Will the Real Vanilla Please Stand Up?

February 23, 2015

Vanilla Beans

Orchids. That’s right, orchids are the source of real vanilla. Native to Mexico, vanilla beans were so rare their scent ended up in exotic perfume, not flavoring. Today, vanilla is so ubiquitous, its name is a stand-in for the ordinary. But there is nothing ordinary about vanilla’s complex manufacturing process or its high cost. Genuine vanilla is the second-most expensive spice behind saffron. It also holds the dubious distinction as one of the most adulterated ingredients in the world.

Chalk that up to the price of popularity. Today, vanilla extract is the most common form of the spice. It is an ingredient found in everything from foods and pharmaceuticals to scents and tobacco products. Two forms of the extract exist. One is the genuine article. The other is a cheap, artificial version containing vanillin.

Why Adulterated Vanilla Is Potentially Dangerous

Vanillin is the primary flavor element in vanilla. Wood lignin and other bean-producing plants are its source. One of those sources is tonka bean extract. It smells and tastes just like vanilla and industry uses it as an aromatic for things like pipe tobacco. But it also contains a compound called coumarin not found in real vanilla.

Researchers use coumarin as a tracer to distinguish pure vanilla extract from adulterated vanilla. Beyond the economics, there are also critical health concerns. Coumarin is toxic to the liver and kidneys, and it causes thinning of the blood. That prompted the FDA and other global health agencies to prohibit or restrict its use for human consumption.

Still, big money is a powerful incentive for criminals to “spike” pure vanilla extract. All kinds of artificial and natural adulterants, including tonka beans, can find their way into so-called “pure vanilla.” It is part of a much larger issue of food fraud that costs the global economy an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion per year.

To combat fraud and help ensure the safety of the global food supply chain, industry and government authorities rely on the time-tested experience and expertise of PerkinElmer. Our 7,700 human and environmental health professionals are dedicated to drive innovative technology that unlocks new solutions for better, healthier lives. After all, we like vanilla ice cream, too!

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