Sweet Smell of Vanilla’s Success

BUSINESS

Vanilla isn’t plain to product developers. It’s the x-factor in most fragrances, conjuring feelings of craving, warmth and familiarity. Other scent trends come and go, but vanilla shows no sign of waning popularity, fragrance experts say. That is fueling a chase to find new iterations. (Wall Street Journal)

Meet a spice buyer from the biggest vanilla dealer in the world—McCormick&Company.

Teachers: Scroll all the way down for a short list of key resources in our “Teachers’ Toolkit.”

Discussion Ideas

  • The Wall Street Journal article describes a new variety of vanilla scent that costs $2,200 per kilogram ($4,850 per pound)! What?! Why is vanilla so expensive?
    • The demand for vanilla is very high. It is used as a flavoring in foods ranging from ice cream to cola to chocolate. It is also used as a scent in products such as soaps, candles, and perfumes.
    • Vanilla is a very labor-intensive crop. (Click here to read about others.) Michael Zampino, the flavorist interviewed in the video, says “to make good vanilla, you need [the seed pod, or ‘bean’] to be on the vine for eight or nine months.” Additionally, most vanilla needs to be hand-pollinated and hand-harvested. Processing vanilla can involve complex chemicals and technology. Zampino shows both in the video. In the simple version, the vanilla macerates in ethanol and water. (Maceration is the process of using a liquid to soften or break down hard material.) In the process used to extract huge quantities of vanilla, enormous machines are used to chop the beans or “percolate” them using devices similar to coffee pots!
Workers in Klaten, Java, Indonesia, put out semi-cured vanilla beans to dry in the sunlight. I love this photo! Photograph courtesy Al Goetze

Workers in Klaten, Java, Indonesia, put out semi-cured vanilla beans to dry in the sunlight. I love this photo!
Photograph courtesy Al Goetze

This vanilla expert in Antalaha, Madagascar is of course smelling vanilla—and also checking the valuable crop for mold, a real danger in the humid tropics of the Indian Ocean. Photograph by Pascal Maitre, National Geographic

This vanilla expert in Antalaha, Madagascar is of course smelling vanilla—and also checking the valuable crop for mold, a real danger in the humid tropics of the Indian Ocean.
Photograph by Pascal Maitre, National Geographic

 

  • If vanilla is so expensive, why isn’t it stolen?
    • It is! Vanilla growers “tattoo” their plants in the same way that ranchers brand their cattle! Growers use a pin to tattoo an identifying mark on each individual seed pod. This, too, is time-consuming (it’s all done by hand) and adds to the expense of the spice.
Vanilla pods are tattooed with pins as they're growing, to brand the valuable crop! Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

Vanilla growers use pins to tattoo vanilla beans with lines or dots as they’re growing, to brand the valuable crop!
Photograph by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic

 

Your map might look something like this! We used the "Climate Zones" map layer to show that vanilla-growing regions share similar temperatures and humidity (both high).

Your map might look something like this! We used the “Climate Zones” map layer to show that vanilla-growing regions share similar temperatures and humidity (both high).

 

  • What is your favorite way to enjoy vanilla? Here’s mine.
Photograph by Lumen GmbH, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Photograph by Lumen GmbH, courtesy Wikimedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

Wall Street Journal: Fragrance and Household Product Makers Hunt for Exotic Vanilla

NG article: Spice Buyer: Al Goetze

NG MapMaker Interactive: Where is Vanilla Grown?

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