Vanilla sometimes gets a bad rap for being a bit of a basic flavor. But the process for making real vanilla flavoring is surprisingly complicated. Couple that with consumers’ newfound demand for everything all-natural, and vanilla beans are getting harder to come by, with prices shooting through the roof. While splitting and steeping a whole, real deal vanilla pod into your homemade ice cream is so much more satisfying than pouring in a couple drops of imitation extract, getting your hands on authentic vanilla could be a bit more difficult in the future.
According to NPR’s The Salt, a bag of vanilla beans in Madagascar – where the bulk of the world’s vanilla beans are grown – costs over ten times what it did just five years ago. The price jump is indicative of the rollercoaster ride vanilla producers have been on recently. Vanilla beans are technically the seeds of orchids, and these flowers need to be pollinated by hand. The processing of the seedpods is also labor and time intensive.
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Since synthetic vanillin – vanillas primary flavor compound – is readily available, over the years, vanilla prices became low enough that many vanilla seed farmers decided it wasn’t worth the effort and got out of the business. But when massive companies like Nestle reacted to growing public sentiment by switching to all-natural ingredients that lack of producers became a big problem. “We don't have the supply to meet the demand right now,” said Craig Nielsen, who co-owns Nielsen-Massey, which makes natural vanilla.
As would be expected, plenty of people are now looking to jump back into the vanilla farming game, but new orchids typically take at least four years to start producing seeds. In the meantime, however, many brands are looking for short-term fixes to keep their prices sensible.
Gerry Newman, who co-owns a bakery in Virginia, told NPR he used buy a gallon of organic, fair-trade vanilla for $64 just a few years ago. At its current price of $245, he switched. “It's not certified organic. It's not fair trade,” he said. “There's a guilt I have over that, because we're talking about something that's all hand labor, and if these people aren't being treated fairly, it's really sad.” Rest assured that someone in Madagascar is making decent money, though – that is, until all this current demand inevitably creates the next vanilla bubble.