Many visitors to Cancun want to bring
home a bottle of Mexico’s famed vanilla extract for
their kitchens at home. Because vanilla originated in Mexico,
it’s natural to think that we’d have a good
supply of real, pure vanilla extract. Well, “Surprise!”
That big bottle of 'genuine pure' vanilla your friends brought
back from Cancun is probably synthetic.
is the only edible fruit from an orchid, and Mexico had
the monopoly on vanilla extract until the late 19th century.
Most of Mexico’s vanilla was (and still is) grown
in Vera Cruz State on the eastern side of the country, in
the moist mountains that also grow a majority of Mexico’s
coffee and tobacco. As travel and shipping expanded, Mexican
vanilla plants made their way to France, Tahiti, and Madagascar,
all which had ideal climates for vanilla production. So
no matter where your vanilla comes from, it has its roots
But strong demand for the scent and flavor
of vanilla combined with the labor-intensive efforts required
to cultivate and process real vanilla created the need for
a synthetic version, which was perfected first by the Germans
in 1880. For a while, other Caribbean and Central American
countries produced artificial vanilla as well, hoping to
cash in on their close proximity to Mexico, and some growth
and production of legitimate vanilla continues to this day
in some of these areas.
The United States is the world's largest
consumer of vanilla, followed by Europe - especially France.
About 1400 tons of dried vanilla is produced worldwide each
year. Our worldwide interest in natural vanilla has grown
considerably in the past several years, however, and the
current annual demand is for 2200 tons of vanilla. As you
can see, there’s an 800 ton gap in production, thus
the demand for synthetic vanilla.
of the vanilla you will encounter in Cancun is synthetic,
no matter what the label says. Bogus vanilla likely includes
a high alcohol content (up to 25%), whereas genuine vanilla
extract will have no more than 2% alcohol. Fake vanilla
may also contain coumarin, an extract of the Tonka tree,
which can be toxic to the liver. It has been outlawed in
the United States, but may still find its way into synthetic
The one brand of vanilla here in Cancun
that enjoys a reputation of being pure and ‘real’
vanilla is Orlando. It’s not available everywhere,
but look around a bit and you’ll find it. If you’re
not going to get the real thing, than you might as well
buy your vanilla back home, where at least you can be pretty
sure that it doesn’t include any harmful chemicals.