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Vanilla - Botany And History

Vanilla is commonly assumed to be a type flavouring typically integrated into a wide assortment of desserts. Despite the extensive popularity of vanilla, not many individuals are aware that it is actually a type of orchid – one of a rare number of orchids largely cultivated for mass-consumption. For those who are into cooking, the origin of the vanilla may not be that obscure. It is general knowledge that all true, pure, and subsequently highly flavourful vanilla is derived not from extracts or from synthetic imitations, but from the whole vanilla bean itself (despite the fact that it isn't even a true ‘bean').

The vanilla orchid is a highly popular flowering plant that is generally employed for landscaping and the mass-production of high-quality vanilla for culinary and aromatherapeutic use. Thriving in the tropics and subtropics, the plant was relatively unknown to the Europeans until its introduction into the European culinary scene by the Conquistador Hernan Cortes during the early to middle part of the 1520s, when he took samples of the plant during his return voyage to Spain. Prior to the introduction of vanilla to the Western world, it had been largely cultivated by Mesoamerican, Indian, and Asiatic cultures for medicinal, religious, and esoteric purposes. The most notable early users of the vanilla plant and its subsequent derivatives were the Aztecs who employed it as a flavouring for beverages, as a type of primitive perfume, an early medicinal incense, and as a tributary item for deities as well as elite classes. Elsewhere the use of vanilla thrived, although not much is recorded in the annals of Western history, as it had been practically unknown prior to the middle of the 1500s. [1]

Vanilla was initially an extremely valuable and rare commodity, and in its early transition from being an exotic commodity to an integral part of Western cuisine, it once held the status of being a spice, and then an herb – and then reverting yet again to the status of a spice, a status it keeps to this day.

The vanilla bean is said to be among the most expensive of spices in the past, with its reputation as such enduring to this day. This is due to the fact that the cultivation, preparation, and propagation of vanilla is an extremely long and labour-intensive process which requires optimal conditions, constant vigilance, and grueling months of patient tending, harvesting, and curing.

The vanilla plant is characterized by its vine-like appearance and the profusion of flat, angular, blade-like leaves of a thick, leathery texture that grow in seemingly asymmetrical patterns over its chosen ‘host'. The vanilla plant is also discernable for its while or ivory-hued flowers, notable for the marked presence of the tubular growth that springs from the main axils, sporting delicate and often fragrant petals. During peak season, the whole of the plant can become covered in flowers, although its inflorescence is only short-lived.

The fruit of the vanilla begins as a pale-green stick or very thin pod, which takes a long as nine months to fully ripen and darken. Both the pollination and the ripening of the plant require patience (the plant is hand-pollinated in the absence of natural pollinators – a trick discovered by a slave, one Edmond Albius, in 1841), making the spice costly. [3] Vanilla beans are only useful in its ripe form, in which they blacken and shrivel up, and begin to exude its familiar unique aroma. The internal parts of the vanilla bean containing its ‘pulp' and seeds possess the greatest number of volatile substances, and are hence the most commonly employed culinary condiment, although the skin of the vanilla pod itself is also aromatic in its own right. Vanilla may be employed whole, or in extracted or powdered form.

Vanilla - Herbal Uses

Today, vanilla is employed chiefly as a flavouring for pastries, savoury dishes, desserts, and light snacks and beverages. Extracts derived from its essence is employed in perfume making, aromatherapy, and cosmetology, while the whole bean itself is sometimes (but rarely) used medicinally despite its potent therapeutic properties.

Despite its minor employment in common alternative medicinal remedies, vanilla is a highly useful medicinal plant. The integration of pure vanilla into foodstuffs itself possesses powerful beneficial effects, as it not only helps to boost the immune system, but it also helps to fight off minor ailments. A remedy consisting of a mild decoction whole goat's milk and vanilla, combined with a whole egg and a dollop of honey stirred until frothy has been a traditional remedy for weak and convalescent individuals the world over. It is typically given to pregnant women, nursing mothers, small and sickly children, as well as debilitated elderly individuals to boost their health and proves to be nutritive, nourishing, and soothing for patients who are unable to take or keep down solid foods.

The paste derived from vanilla beans have been employed by some Asiatic cultures (i. e. India, Palau, the Philippines) as a remedy for toothaches. It is typically extracted via cutting the bean in half and scraping the pulp, which is then inserted or smeared unto the ailing area several times a day, or when the pain recurs. Some tribal cultures employ this very same material as a type of organic ‘toothpaste', as it is said that it is helpful in preventing dental caries and treating halitosis. [4] In Ayurveda, the moderate but regular consumption of vanilla-flavoured foodstuffs, or the imbibing of liquor derived from its decoction is believed to be a remedy for anemia, arthritis, and palsy. [4]

In Hispanic folkloric medicine and Puebloan shamanic healing practices, whole pods are decocted and the ensuing liquor is drunk as a remedy for fever. The integration of honey is said to help soothe sore throats, while very potent decoctions are given to individuals who suffer from panic attacks and hysteria. Vanilla ‘tea' is also drunk by people of all ages as a sleeping draught, as it possesses mild and pleasing sedative qualities which stems from its essential oil and primary constituent vanillin. Whole vanilla pods or powdered vanilla may even be integrated into spirits or wine via cold infusion or decoction, and the resulting beverage drunk as either a sedative or an aphrodisiac. [5]

Nowadays, vanilla is even integrated into the creation of cosmetics such as soaps, shampoos, and (in time-honoured fashion) perfumes. Powdered vanilla mixed with reetha (soap nuts) [Sapindus mukorossi] makes for the perfect skin exfoliant, encouraging the repair and revitalization of skin, while allowing one to relax and de-stress in the process. A potent decoction of vanilla beans cooled and employed as a hair rinse, or a cold infusion of whole vanilla pods in apple cider vinegar makes for a great after-shampoo hair rinse that enlivens and perfumes the hair naturally.

In aromatherapy, oils infused with whole vanilla pods, or base oils mixed with extracts of its essential essences are employed as relaxing massage oils. When burnt using a diffuser, it is said to help alleviate stress, uplift one's mood, and counteract depression. Sniffing vanilla frequently is even said to improve mental clarity and focus, as well as evoke feelings of safety and comfort making it a perfect household scent. The scent of vanilla (like the mild tincture of the pods) is also believed to be an aphrodisiac by some individuals, which is why it's essential oils are often incorporated in candle-making, potpourri, and incenses.

Vanilla - Scientific Studies And Research


The study results from the study of Choo, Rukayadi, and Hwang (2006) suggest that vanilla inhibits bacterial quorum sensing, [6] or the “regulation of gene expression in response to fluctuations in cell-population density.” [7] Choo, Rukayadi, and Hwang (2006) utilized Chromobacterium violaceum CV026, a Tn-5 mutant, to monitor the quorum sensing inhibition and measured the inhibitory activity by quantifying the production of violacein (a bactericidal, tumoricidal, trypanocidal, and antileishmanial pigment reported to also inhibit Plasmodium growth in vitro and in vivo [8]) using a spectrophotometer. [6] Since Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria employ quorum sensing communication circuits to regulate different physiological activities, such as symbiosis, virulence, competence, conjugation, antibiotic production, motility, sporulation, and biofilm formation, [7] by extension, vanilla's inhibitory activity on bacterial quorum sensing also disrupts these processes, thus preventing bacterial pathogenesis.


A variety of vanilla extract constituents have also been known to exert antioxidant activity. Shyamala, Naidu, Sulochanamma, and Srinivas (2007) used β-carotene–linoleate and 2,2-diphenyl-1-picrylhydrazyl (DPPH) in vitro model systems to evaluate the antioxidant activity of major constituents in Vanilla tahitensis extract. They had determined that the extract, at a concentration of 200 ppm, displayed an antioxidant activity of 26% and 43% by β-carotene–linoleate and DPPH methods, respectively, and that 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzyl alcohol and 4-hydroxybenzyl alcohol exhibited an antioxidant activity of 65% and 45% by beta-carotene-linoleate method and 90% and 50% by DPPH method, respectively. [9] Among vanilla's active compounds, the antioxidative activity of vanillin is noteworthy; as reported by Tai, Sawano, Yazama, and Ito (2011), vanillin exerts stronger antioxidant activity than ascorbic acid and Trolox (a water-soluble derivative of vitamin E) in ABTS(+)-scavenging assay, ORAC assay, and oxidative hemolysis inhibition assay. [10]

Vanilla - Molecular Components and Chemistry

Kun, Jialiang, Zhiqiang, and Jiahao (1998) examined the composition of vanilla essential oil obtained with supercritical carbon dioxide fluid extraction through gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and found vanillin to be of the highest content among the diverse components identified, accounting for a 64.83% relative content. [11] Vanillin, an aroma and flavor molecule, is to date biogenetically linked to the phenylpropanoid pathway and to other physiologically significant molecules, particularly salicylate. [12] Also, vanillin possesses antimetastatic and antiangiogenic effects and has been reported to improve the apoptotic activity of tumor necrosis factor–related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) against cancer cells by inhibiting the activation of NF-κB. TRAIL is an important and promising anticancer agent known to eliminate cancer cells without adversely affecting normal cells, but resistance from it appears to exist among cancer cells and thus the sensitizing effect of vanillin on cancer cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis is of value. [13]

Vanillin's antimetastatic potential appears to also be attributed to its ability to reduce the invasiveness of cancer cells; at non-cytotoxic concentrations, vanillin inhibits not only the invasion and migration of cancer cells but also the enzymatic activity of MMP-9 secreted by the cancer cells. [14]

Profiling vanilla extract (cured vanilla beans in 60% aqueous ethyl alcohol) through high-performance liquid chromatography, Shyamala, Naidu, Sulochanamma, and Srinivas (2007) identified the following major compounds: vanillic acid, 4-hydroxybenzyl alcohol, 4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzyl alcohol, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, and vanillin. [9] Aside from vanillin, other key odorant compounds in vanilla essential oil include anisyl alcohol (one of the most abundant odorants along with vanillin), acetic acid, anisaldehyde, and anisyl acetate. [15]

Vanilla - Esoteric Uses

Vanilla's long standing employment in European cuisine has also earned it a slot in Western magickal practices, where it is chiefly employed as an aphrodisiac. Whether brewed as a tisane, burnt as incense, or slathered on as oil, it is said to lower the inhibitions and evoke passionate, yet tender lust making it useful for love spells. Despite not being a part of Voodoo and Hoodoo herbalism, it is usually employed when creating fixing spells or money spells, as it is also said to attract fortune and generate luck. In meditative practices, vanilla incense or its essential oil is said to boost or improve one's mental prowess and focus, and is employed to this effect when raising energy or performing invocations. [16]

Vanilla - Contraindications And Safety

While vanilla is relatively safe for general consumption, individuals may be naturally allergic to true vanilla and its derivative extracts (although they show no allergic reaction to the fake kind), so care must be taken when preparing it for guests or family members who may not be aware of this tendency. Furthermore, individuals who suffer from Gilbert's Syndrome (GS or Gilbert-Meulengracht syndrome) should steer clear of products containing pure or extracted vanilla as it may aggravate the disease, although artificial flavourings are relatively safe. [17]

It should be noted that despite the commonplace availability of vanilla extract, not all products labeled as such is authentic, and one can usually tell due to its cheap price. When employing vanilla for medicinal or general therapeutic purposes, it is better to purchase whole vanilla pods or pure essential extracts from reputable dealers.

Names of Vanilla, Past and Present

Chinese: xiangcao
Japanese: banira (transliteration of English ‘vanilla')
Spanish: vainilla
French: vanille (usually affixed with place of origin)
Italian: vanilla
Sanskrit: sugandhiphala
Filipino: vanilla (pronounced vah-nil-yah; also, normal pronunciation, adopted into colloquial use from English. Original tribal names are now lost)
Aztec: tlixochitl
Latin: Vanilla panifolia / Vanilla fragrans (other nomenclatures exist)







[6] Choo J. H., Rukayadi Y., & Hwang J. K. (2006). Inhibition of bacterial quorum sensing by vanilla extract. Letters in Applied Microbiology, 42(6): 637–641. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[7] Miller M. B. & Bassler B. L. (2001). Quorum sensing in bacteria. Annual Review of Microbiology, 55: 165–199. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[8] Lopes S. C. et al. (2009). Violacein extracted from Chromobacterium violaceum inhibits Plasmodium growth in vitro and in vivo. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 53(5): 2149–2152. doi: 10.1128/AAC.00693-08. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[9] Shyamala B. N., Naidu M. M., Sulochanamma G., & Srinivas P. (2007). Studies on the antioxidant activities of natural vanilla extract and its constituent compounds through in vitro models. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 55(19): 7738–7743. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[10] Tai A., Sawano T., Yazama F., & Ito H. (2011). Evaluation of antioxidant activity of vanillin by using multiple antioxidant assays. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, 1810(2): 170–177. doi: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2010.11.004. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[11] Kun Z., Jialiang L., Zhiqiang S., & Jiahao J. (1998). Supercritical CO_(2) fluid extraction of Vanilla essential oil and its GC/MS analysis. Journal of South China Agricultural University, 19(3): 111–113. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from;jsessionid=XqupJEaAbfzbmcnswFjm.4

[12] Walton N. J., Mayer M. J., & Narbad A. (2003). Vanillin. Phytochemistry, 63(5): 505–515. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[13] Lirdprapamongkol K. et al. (2010). Vanillin enhances TRAIL-induced apoptosis in cancer cells through inhibition of NF-kappaB activation. In Vivo, 24(4): 501–506. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[14] Lirdprapamongkol K. et al. (2005). Vanillin suppresses in vitro invasion and in vivo metastasis of mouse breast cancer cells. European Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, 25(1): 57–65. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from

[15] Takahashi M., Inai Y., Miyazawa N., Kurobayashi Y., & Fujita A. (2013). Identification of the key odorants in Tahitian cured vanilla beans (Vanilla tahitensis) by GC-MS and an aroma extract dilution analysis. Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry, 77(3): 601–605. Retrieved 8 April 2013 from



Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, scientific studies report by Dan Ablir.

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