The vanilla bean, obtained from Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis, members of the Orchidaceae family, is the source of vanilla extract, one of the most desired and widely used food flavorings worldwide. Besides uses of vanilla in foods, perfumes, and pharmaceuticals, it has complementary medicinal applications including alleviation of fever, spasms, and gastrointestinal irritations, to name a few. However, support from the scientific literature for human health benefits of vanilla and its chemical constituents vanillin and vanillic acid is limited and preliminary. This narrative review provides a summary of findings from human and animal studies addressing potential health benefits of the extract of this bean and select extract components.
The vanilla plant, Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrans (family Orchidaceae), is native to Mexico and is cultivated in numerous sites worldwide, with Indonesia and Madagascar being major sources of production. Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla pompona are other key species contributing to commercial vanilla production. The green vanilla beans harvested from the plants are essentially odorless and lacking flavor. It is during the curing process of ripening, drying, and conditioning that chemical and enzymatic reactions produce the distinctive flavor and aroma profiles of the different end products. These species provide vanilla products differing in quality and use. For example, V. pompona bean is of lesser quality and used more in the production of fragrances. On the other hand, V. planifolia and V. tahitensis exhibit stronger, more desirable aroma profiles. Vanilla extract is prepared by further macerating cured vanilla pods with a solution of ethanol and water to produce a finished flavoring product that must meet a specific Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standard of identity. Imitation or synthetic vanilla extract is a cheaper food flavoring synthesized from starting chemicals originating from less expensive entities, such as clove oil, spruce tree lignin, and a petrochemical-derived precursor. The price of natural vanilla extract can vary considerably. Practically speaking, retail real vanilla extract could cost several dollars per ounce depending on market forces, whereas imitation vanilla extract could cost several cents per ounce.
Extracts of the dried bean are used for a wide assortment of food products. The largest use of vanilla is for ice cream preparations. It has widespread use in enhancing consumer acceptance of yogurt products, and it is added to both alcoholic beverages and soft drinks. Baked goods, such as cookies, brownies, and cakes, contain vanilla, which also flavors syrups, custards, and puddings. For certain limited culinary purposes, natural extracts from V. planifolia may be used. However, for a preponderance of food applications, less expensive imitation extract is used to produce a desired vanilla flavor. In many baked products, for example, imitation and natural vanilla flavors are essentially indistinguishable, especially in those products where vanilla is not intended to be the prominent flavor. As a sweet noncaloric flavoring, vanilla can contribute to strategies to decrease consumer intake of sugars.
Extract chemicals also are used for perfumes and pharmaceuticals. The distinctive flavor of vanilla is due to the collective orosensory contribution of a multitude of aromatic volatiles created during processing of the bean. Hundreds of chemicals in the extract have been identified that together participate in crafting this unique flavor profile, although vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is the main contributor, achieving levels of 1% to 2% wt/wt in cured pods. Additional important flavor components include p-hydroxybenzoic acid, p-hydroxybenzaldehyde, vanillic acid (4-hydroxy-3-methylbenzoic acid), p-hydroxybenzyl alcohol, anise alcohol, and vanillyl alcohol, as well as tannins, resins, free amino acids, and other nonvolatiles. Both vanillin and vanillic acid are approved food-flavoring agents. Some traditional medicinal uses of vanilla include treatment for fever, spasms, dysmenorrhea, blood clotting, and gastrointestinal (GI) distress.1–7 In the 18th century bce, vanillin was even used as an Old World mortuary offering. More recently, the antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antisickling, antimicrobial, and hypolipidemic properties of vanilla extract have drawn the attention of the food and nutraceutical industries.
Currently, there is a general lack of research data on this area of nutrition. In light of preliminary findings to date, there is a need for a more systematic approach to exposing any health benefits by examining vanilla’s possible biological actions in animal models and humans. This narrative review outlines the emerging research on vanilla, providing direction for systematic research building the evidence base for potential human health benefits.
Source: Nutrition Today