The highly aromatic, cured pod (or “bean”) of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia) is the primary product. Vanilla owes its properties to vanillin, a compound that is formed during pod maturation and in the curing process. Vanillin is believed to be one of most popular scents in the world. Natural vanillin is expensive by weight, but when used as a flavoring it is affordable.
Vanilla is used extensively to flavor ice cream, chocolate, bev- erages, candies, cakes, puddings, custards, and many other confections. In Hawai‘i, chefs add it to seafood dishes and other non-dessert dishes. Commercial products include:
- Whole cured vanilla beans
- Extractions (usually in a minimum 35% alcohol)
- Powder of ground, cured beans
- Paste (minimum 12.5% ground cured beans with sugar syrup, starch, or other ingredients)
As an aromatic, vanilla is included in products such as perfumes, cosmetics, lotions, detergents, fabric softeners, air fresheners, aroma therapy, and many others. It is also widely used in rubber manufacture and in the fabrication of other items with unpleasant odors.
While the traditions surrounding vanilla are filled with references of the ritualistic and healing powers of this spice, there are few well documented studies to verify these characteristics. Recently, some evidence of anticarcinogenic (interference with cancer formation) and anticlastogenic (promotion of chromosome repair) activity of vanillin has been found.
The anticlastogenic effect of vanillin has been documented in the protection that it provides to cells that are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and X-rays. When vanillin was added to cell cultures, mutation was significantly reduced following exposure to radiation. This study clearly provides evidence that there are antimutagenic properties of vanillin.