Not so vanilla: The mission to spice up our favourite flavour

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There are more than 100 species of vanilla orchid, but we rely on just three in our food. By tapping into this wider array, researchers are not only finding variations tasting of marshmallow or caramel, but may also help avert a crisis facing the crop



Life



31 March 2021

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Vanilla is an important ingredient in many desserts

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ONE evening last September, I sat blindfolded in my kitchen, about to have my taste buds tickled by something I had long taken for granted. I was sniffing and sipping my way through three vanilla extracts, each drawn from a different species of vanilla orchid.

In the tests, I picked out the extract from Vanilla planifolia no problem. As the most common vanilla, I knew it well from every batch of cookie dough I had ever made. The extract from Vanilla pompona, sometimes enjoyed in Central and South America, was subtler. The one from Vanilla tahitensis, popular in French pastries, was sweeter.

The extracts were sent to me by Alan Chambers, a plant breeder with big plans for the spice. Just as he had promised, there was more variety in vanilla than I realised. If his project comes to fruition, there will be far more still to enjoy – and his efforts could help save the crop from crisis.

Only a fraction of the vanilla we consume is natural; the vast majority is artificial. But this is changing, a shift largely driven by major food manufacturers abandoning the synthetic stuff in their US products in 2015, causing demand to suddenly outstrip supply. What’s more, the crop is highly vulnerable to disease.

“New varieties of vanilla could be more citrusy, smoky, nutty or caramelly”

That is due to a lack of genetic diversity. There are more than 100 species of vanilla orchid, yet we consume only a handful. Chambers plans to make vanilla less, well, vanilla, by tapping into the plant’s …

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