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Is your Vanilla artificial or natural?

Vanillin (C8H8O3) is the main organic flavour compound of the vanilla bean and one of many organic compounds found in pure vanilla extract. Chemists discovered a method of artificially synthesizing vanillin in the 1870s using precursors like coniferin, guaiacol, or eugenol, causing an enormous increase in both supply and demand for the distinctive vanilla flavor.

Synthetic vanilla typically comprises vanillin in solution without the diverse assortment of other organic compounds found in the natural substance. However, more modern biotechnologically produced vanillin utilizes precursors like ferulic acid and rice bran and has become so sophisticated that they can often be designated as natural vanilla flavorings. Each of these marker substances can be detected using HPLC chromatography.

Vanillin Molecule
Determination of vanillin in vanilla front page

This Application Note from Knauer looks at the HPLC analysis of the components of Synthetic and Natural vanilla flavorings and demonstrates how the technique can be used to identify the synthetic vanilla from the natural.

The Production of Natural Vanilla

Vanilla Flower

Vanillin is a flavoring derived from orchids of the genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species, flat-leaved vanilla (V. planifolia). Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid, called tlīlxochitl by the Aztecs, with Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés being credited with introducing vanilla to Europe in the 1520s.

Today it is more commonly known as “Bourbon vanilla” (after the former name of Réunion, Île Bourbon, where it is cultivated).

Vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron because growing the vanilla seed pods is labor-intensive. Despite the expense, vanilla is highly sought after for its flavor. As a result, vanilla is widely used in both commercial and domestic baking, perfume manufacture, and aromatherapy.

Today, Madagascar remains the largest producer of vanilla worldwide. Yet their output of the spice is a mere 2,926 tons per annum. Bourbon vanilla is subsequently a scarce commodity in terms of supply. Therefore, high-quality artificial derivatives are in extreme demand and the price of synthetic vanilla continues to climb year-on-year. HPLC systems are subsequently integral for distinguishing natural from artificial vanilla products based on key organic marker substances, for superior quality control of raw materials in a range of downstream applications.