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The History of Vanilla, Around the World, Across the Centuries

By BETH HARPAZ

For thousands of years, vanilla was cultivated and used in just one place on Earth: ancient Meso-America. Then in the 16th century, Spanish colonizers who’d encountered vanilla in the New World introduced it to Europe. Eventually, as told in Vanilla: A Global History, by Professor Rosa Abreu-Runkel (City Tech), vanilla became a favorite scent and flavor among aristocrats and royalty, used in everything from confections and drinks to perfumes, tonics, and aphrodisiacs. 

Today, vanilla is grown around the globe, and it’s so ubiquitous that it’s become a synonym for plain or bland. But it remains the second-most expensive spice in the world after saffron, and its cultivation, according to Abreu-Runkel, is so complex that it took centuries for growers and scientists to unlock its secrets.

Abreu-Runkel traces vanilla’s origins to the Totonac people, who inhabited what is now Veracruz and northern Puebla in Mexico. They believed vanilla “was a gift given to them by the gods,” she writes. They “considered vanilla a sacred herb and used it in ritual offerings, as a perfume and for medicine, but rarely as a flavoring.” 

In Europe, vanilla’s elite fans included Queen Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette. Thomas Jefferson imported it into the U.S., and Dolley Madison popularized it as an ice cream flavor.

But it took 300 years before vanilla was cultivated outside of Mexico. It comes from a type of orchid that was successfully transplanted into various humid climates, but the plants wouldn’t produce pods.

Finally, a Frenchman observing a vanilla plant in Mexico realized that each orchid bloom was being pollinated by a small species of bee found nowhere else in the world. Then in 1841, an enslaved man on a plantation in Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean, began manually pollinating the orchids. That breakthrough enabled growers to produce vanilla elsewhere.

In the mid-19th century, scientists developed a way to make synthetic vanillin. Artificial vanilla is much cheaper than natural vanilla, and Abreu-Runkel says it’s widely used today in everything from baked goods, diet and dairy products to candles and air fresheners. Imitation vanilla is also sold directly to consumers.

But some companies–including confection-makers Nestle and Hershey–have committed to using only real vanilla. For consumers who want the real thing for home use, Abreu-Runkel has this advice: Look for the words “pure vanilla extract” on labels; close the bottle cap tightly and store in a cool, dark place; and seek out reliable distributors like McCormick, Penzeys Spices, and Simply Organic.

Today,  Mexico–vanilla’s birthplace–is only its fourth-largest producer after Madagascar, Indonesia, and China. But, says Abreu-Runkel, the land of the Totonac people remains the source of the world’s finest vanilla.

Beyond SUM

Explore This Work

Vanilla: A Global History
Reaktion Books, 2021

Work By

Rosa Abreu-Runkel (Assistant Professor, Hospitality Management) | Profile 1