The Ultimate Vanilla Guide: History, Production, Growth & More

Vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor, the 2nd most expensive spice in the world, and one of the world’s most labor intensive crops.
— Prova


What Is Vanilla Bean?

"Vanilla bean" is the fruit of the vanilla plant. Vanilla bean is not meant to be consumed “as is”; one needs to either scrape the seeds out, infuse it, or extract from it.

Does Vanilla Extract Have Alcohol? 

Yes, the US standard of identity for "Vanilla Extract" states that it must contain a minimum of 35% alcohol.

In the EU, "vanillin" content is regulated. "Vanillin" must be at 1.6-2.0% to be considered a "Vanilla Extract", however during times of crisis, the standard is lowered to 1.0-1.2% vanillin.

What Flower Does Vanilla Come From?

Vanilla originates from an orchid and it grows like a vine.

Where Did Vanilla Originate?

The vanilla plant originated from Mexico, and was transported in the 1800’s to the French Islands off the east coast of Africa, Reunion and Mauritius. However, after careful planting, the orchids were sterile and did not produce vanilla beans. It was later learned that a special bee—that only lives in Mexico—was required to pollinate the orchids. The team tried to export the special Mexican bees to the French Islands, but the bees could not survive the long journey. But alas! In 1841, a slave discovered possibility of "hand-pollinating" the orchids using a bamboo-like needle tool, this method is still used to this day.

How Are Vanilla Beans Grown?

*(Scroll down to the section titled "Vanilla Production". It's so interesting!)

How Is Vanilla Made?

*(Scroll down to the section titled "Vanilla Manufacturing". We'll tell you all about it!)

Where Are Vanilla Beans Grown?

Vanilla beans are grown in: Madagascar, India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Mexico, Comoro Islands, Uganda, Hawaii, Martinique, Guadeloupe, New Caledonia, and Tahiti.

How many different types of vanilla are there?

There are 3 different species of vanilla.

  1. Planifolia - 97% of market
  2. Tahitensis - 2% of market
  3. Pompona* - <1% of market

*Pompona is not used in the food industry, it is used for the cosmetic and perfume industries. Pompona has a very different profile and is extremely rare—only Martinique and Guadeloupe islands have the proper climate to produce this vanilla species.

What Is Vanilla Extract?

Vanilla extract is traditionally an extraction made by the infusion of vanilla bean into alcohol. This method helps to allow the different aromatic components to transfer into the carrier—essentially a "tincture".

  • "American Extraction Method of Vanilla Beans" - typically a maceration followed by cold-extraction.
  • "European Extraction Method of Vanilla Beans" - typically a grinding following by heat-controlled alcohol extraction.

(Both methods have different pros and cons.)

What Is Natural Vanilla Flavor?

"Natural Vanilla Flavor" is made using part real vanilla (that comes from real vanilla beans) plus "other natural flavor substances". These "other natural flavor substances" are organic-chemistry compounds that help "fill in" vanilla-like taste. As the name indicates, these "other natural flavor substances" come from all-natural sources, and do not specifically have to come from vanilla bean. So, for example, a certain organic compound that helps provide a "sweet woody-like" flavor to the finished "Natural Vanilla Flavor", may actually derive from celery, not vanilla (and so on and so forth). 

What Is Imitation Vanilla?

There is no concrete definition for "Imitation Vanilla" because it is not regulated by the government. But generally, "Imitation Vanilla" contains artificial / synthetic components. Synthetic components are organic-chemistry compounds that do not derive from a natural source—they are typically constructed in a lab using chemical raw materials.


History of Vanilla

1400 AD - “The Legend” - Legend has it that in 1000 AD a Mexican tribe, The Totonacs, discovered vanilla.

1427 - “The Sacred Bean” - The Aztecs used vanilla to flavor their favorite drink, Cacahuatl ,“Drink of the Gods”.

1519 - "The Conquered Bean" - Upon Cortes’s arrival in Mexico City, he discovered vanilla, as Montezuma greeted him graciously with The Drink of the Gods.

1571 - “Let’s Make it Official" - The name “vanilla” makes it into a botany dictionary.

1602 - "The Queen Bean" - Queen Elizabeth I begins a trend of spraying vanilla on sugar and using it to make sweets.

1650 - "Vanilla Plantations" - Large vanilla plantations are established in Mexico.

1822 - "Vanilla from Mexico" - Mexico is chief producer of vanilla until mid 1800, when it was first shipped to the islands of Reunion and Mauritius by the French.

1836 - "A Tasty Discovery" - After much observation, Mr. Charles Morren discovered that the flowers could be artificially pollinated.

1841 - “Give Vanilla a Hand" - Edmond Albius, a 12 year-old slave, discovered the technique of manual pollination still used to this day.

1880 - "Vanilla in Madagascar" - The orchids were sent from Reunion Island to Madagascar, along with instructions for pollinating the Vanilla was planted in the tropical rainforests along the coast.

1890 - “Ze French Arrival " - Wherever the French settled, vanilla plantations followed. The French eventually left Madagascar in the mid 1970’s, vanilla has been grown almost entirely by local families.

2016 - “Modern Vanilla Romance" - With 80% of the world’s production, Madagascar remains the #1 vanilla producing / exporting country in the world.


Vanilla Production: How is Vanilla Produced?


1. Planting - The first flowering occurs 3 years after planting.

2. Blossoming - Vanilla orchids produce racemes attached to the vine and grow upward toward the sunlight. Typically one flower blooms at a time with each raceme. (mid Sept - mid Dec)

3. Pollination - Works must check daily--after blossoming, the workers have 12 hours to pollinate. (from 6 weeks to 2 months, mid Sept - mid Dec during blossoming)

4. Harvest - The beans are ready to harvest when the tips become yellow. The plantations are visited daily so that the pods can be picked as soon as they are ready. (June - July, 7-9 months after the pollination)

5. Blanching - Curing should begin within 1 week of harvest. (2 -3 minute process, wood fire @ 65 degrees Celsius)

6. Sweating - Allows for oxidation and enzymatic hydrolysis, then the "sweated" vanilla beans are usually placed on wool blanket. (24-48 hours)

7. Drying (Aug - Sept)

a) Sun Drying - Several hours per day, on wool blankets, elevated about 70 cm off the ground (1-2 weeks)

b) Shade Drying - Beans are spread out on rack spaced 12 cm apart in a well-ventilated room. The beans are sorted regularly, when beans have expelled sufficient moisture and are “supple” to the touch with pronounced, rich color, they are immediately removed—to avoid mold/mildew growth. This procedure is repeated weekly.  (2-3 months)

c) Rack Drying - Beans are removed for conditioning, sorted again, and are straightened by drawing them through the fingers. The beans are next tied into bundles of about 50 beans, wrapped in wax paper, then placed in wax paper-lined, metal conditioning boxes. (3 months)

8. Selecting - Culled by color, length, moisture content—the beans are sorted by quality category. (Oct - January)

9. Conditioning - The beans are packed following the different categories. For extraction, the appearance is not a key factor, more important are the moisture and vanillin content. Lastly, the beans are given a final grading and packed for shipment. (February - March)


Most vanilla is sourced from smallholder farmers living in North Madagascar in the "SAVA" region: Sambava, Antalaha, Vohemar, Andapa.

Vanilla Manufacturing: How is Vanilla Extract Made? 


Vanilla Pod:

  1. Grinding

  2. Extraction

  3. Concentration (Total Evaporation of Solvent)

  4. Filtration

  5. Dilution Adjustment

  6. Storage (of Semi-Finished Products)

*This method is not used by all vanilla manufacturers; it is typically used in Europe.



The distillates are broken down into the following solubility categories:


  • Oil Soluble Extracts
  • Milk Soluble Extracts
  • Water Soluble Extracts