I am blessed to live in Santa Cruz county, which is home to not only some of the best farmers in the world, but to the sort of open-minded, free-thinking, generous-of-heart-and-spirit people with whom I am most comfortable. (And is it really a big secret that I never returned to Georgia after age 18 because there were no health food stores open on Sunday?) I once belonged to a culinary group here, and it was there that I first met "The Vanilla Queen," Patricia Rain.
I ran into Patricia at my favorite little farmers market a few months ago, and we caught up with each other's lives. I realized that she's helping the small, independent vanilla growers for the same reason I blog: we love what these people do.
Patricia's love for vanilla led her to write a book, Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance, and I know that some of you foodie types already own this book. (David Lebovitz, I'm looking at you. And you, gentle reader, should go look at David Lebovitz as well.)
So naturally, I invited Patricia to write for my blog: getting the information out on helping small growers is, of course, what I'm all about. Moreover, I am a vanilla lover who is never without two or three or a dozen vanilla beans in my kitchen. Oh, how I love vanilla beans.
But she's been busy with work and family and other things, and it wasn't until today that she finally (happily!) sent me something, and so, readers, I give you Patricia Rain. (Preaching to the choir, sure, but send this link around.)
The holiday season is here and most of us are stocking up on ingredients to make our celebratory meals. Vanilla is certainly a must have for anyone who bakes; our cakes and cookies, eggnog and ice creams would taste very different without its delicate yet all-important flavor. We can count on finding it in the grocery, in specialty foods stores, and even in the discount markets, reliable, ready and oh, so delicious!
Now imagine for a moment that you go to the store to buy your baking ingredients and there is no vanilla on the shelf. In fact, the only ingredient available is imitation vanilla. So you go to a second store and a third. No pure vanilla. You look online. No pure vanilla.
This isn’t a fantasy, unfortunately, as it could actually happen to us in the next few years. At this moment, less than one percent of all the vanilla flavored and scented products in the world contain pure vanilla. We are currently balanced on the threshold of losing pure vanilla forever!
Those of you who use vanilla regularly are well aware that the prices of pure vanilla have been unusually pricey during the last several years. Most likely you’ve even grumbled about it. For those of you who didn’t know about why the prices were so high, between 1999 and late 2004 there was a world shortage of vanilla. Initially driven by such low prices that the farmers tore up their vanilla, the shortage was fueled by weather-related disasters and political unrest. The shortage created a crisis and prices escalated to unprecedented levels. Although there is now an abundance of vanilla in the market as farmers throughout the tropics planted vanilla, we are faced with a crisis of even greater proportions. Why? Because the big corporations have switched to a new generation of synthetic vanilla!
Most of us don’t know a whole lot about the flavors and spices we use on a regular basis, and vanilla is no exception. For instance, did you know that vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world? Did you know that vanilla is grown only in developing countries as a commercial venture because there is a ready supply of workers willing to produce vanilla for a fraction of the cost of growing it here? Are you aware that even though there no longer is a shortage of vanilla, many of the ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturers, the companies who use the most vanilla in the world, are still using “flavor identical alternatives,” the euphemistic term for synthetic vanilla? (Tana's note: emphasis mine.) Finally, are you aware that you are paying the same price for these desserts as when they contained pure vanilla?
This current crisis could spell the end of pure vanilla. If large corporations that have used pure vanilla in their formulas in the past don’t switch back to pure vanilla, people will grow accustomed to the flavor of imitation vanilla. The prices for vanilla will fall so far below the cost of production that the farmers will have no incentive to grow it. And since the majority of people won’t recognize the difference between the flavor and fragrance of imitation and pure vanilla, vanilla could go the way of so many other valuable rain forest plants, animals and birds.
There are specific regulations for producing ice creams and other frozen desserts that were established by the FDA in the 1960s to regulate an industry that had no specific rules or controls either for product quality or the inclusion of ingredients. Active legislation ensued and now vanilla extract is the only flavoring with both an FDA Standard of Identity of its own and an FDA ice cream standard.
In order to be labeled vanilla ice cream or pure vanilla ice cream, the product must be made with 100 percent pure vanilla. It can be made with vanilla extract or vanilla beans. Usually pure vanilla ice cream is made with top-quality ingredients, as the pure vanilla will not mask any “off” flavor or fragrance notes. “Super-premium” and “premium” ice creams usually have a high butter-fat content, so double-strength pure vanilla extract is most often used. At least, this was true until recently. (Detailed information on the FDA regulations and Standard of Identity can be found in Patricia's book, above.)
If you look at the ingredients on a container of many vanilla or “vanilla bean” ice creams in the U.S., you will notice that it says “natural flavor” on the package. While this may not sound suspicious, “natural flavor” actually means vanillin made from plant substances such as beets and paper pulp (conifers contain vanillin, which is why Ponderosa pines smell somewhat vanilla-like). In fact, many premium ice creams contain no pure vanilla at all. It is flavored with chemical vanillin and has flecks of flavorless “exhausted” vanilla beans (left over from the extraction process) added for appearance. For this, we’re paying a premium price.
How does this affect us?
Not using pure vanilla in premium products is in defiance of the FDA Standards of Identity. Both the ice cream companies and the companies that produce and sell large quantities of synthetic vanillin would very much like the Standards of Identity to be revised in their favor. There is now a proposal to the FDA to allow vanilla flavor from sources other than pure vanilla to be used and still sold as premium vanilla ice cream.
At this time, tons of vanilla, worldwide, are going unsold. Why? Because there isn’t a market for the beans. Historically, the frozen dessert industry has been the largest buyer of vanilla. Because they are now using synthetics, the pure vanilla is sitting in warehouses around the world.
In 1998, 2300 metric tons of vanilla beans were used worldwide. In 2004, it was 1200 tons and dropping! Farmers who have not been able to sell their vanilla will be forced to change to another agricultural crop, which often means tearing out their vanilla plants. Crises such as this often leads farmers to immigrate to industrialized countries in search of work. This is a crisis of major proportions for the tropical growers of vanilla.
What you can do
The most effective thing we all can do is to create a populist movement to get pure vanilla back into ice cream, frozen yogurt and other vanilla-flavored products we buy regularly. Call or write the company whose products you normally use and ask if they use pure vanilla extract or flavor in their products. If they don’t, let them know that you want products with pure vanilla.
We can bring about change, but we need to act now. Tell everyone you know to support pure vanilla. Call your favorite talk radio station and bring up this topic. If you know people in the media, ask them to write an article about the vanilla crisis. Even if you don’t buy commercial ice creams, yogurts or other dairy products, this is an issue of critical importance to the growers and to all of us who want vanilla to be available in the years to come. Large corporations need to know that they are being watched and that we want them held accountable.
Please purchase vanilla products that have been bought at fair prices whenever possible. Vanilla is not part of the Fair Trade movement as it is a very small industry compared with tropical commodities such as coffee, chocolate, sugar and bananas. As a result, you will need to ask vendors how they buy their vanilla. (NOTE: The Vanilla.COMpany buys their vanilla beans and extracts at Fair Trade prices. Wholesale and retail purchases from this company help to fund grass-roots projects for vanilla growers and their families worldwide. For more information about this, feel free to contact Patricia at [email protected].)
We are no longer isolated from one another in the world. We are a global community and we need to think and live as a community. Every choice we make, every action we take, can affect people around the world. This is especially true regarding the choices we make in the foods we purchase and consume every day.
Vanilla is a rain forest orchid whose fruit, the vanilla pod (bean) contains medicinal value that is just now being discovered and researched. It has value in aromatherapy. It is a key component in many perfumes. And it is a luscious substance that flavors the foods we love. Please join in the movement to keep pure vanilla alive and available. Bring vanilla out of your cupboard and put it with the other condiments you use daily. Vanilla is a magical ingredient; in fact, it’s world’s favorite flavor and fragrance. Support the growers who bring us this remarkable product: Help us to save pure vanilla!
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Thank you, Patricia, for letting us know about all this.
If anyone actually does contact companies (I do), feel free to use the comments section of this entry or trackbacks to it, sharing company names, websites, phone numbers, anything. Feel free to post links to the megacorporations, not just Ben & Jerry.
Let's take the ball and run.
More vanilla treats:
Patricia's vanilla recipes
Chef Recipe Newsletter:Vanilla Glaze for Grilled Chicken
The White Stuff: How Vanilla Became Shorthand for Bland
Just Plain Wonderful: Extract, bean or powder, vanilla is a foodie favorite
Vanilla Mojito recipe
Rainforest Spices visits a vanilla farm in Costa Rica.
Chipotle-Vanilla Salsa & BBQ Sauce
Accidental Hedonist's recipe for vanilla-glazed acorn squash
Ooooweeee, a bunch of recipes from Country Living:
Slow-Cooked Chicken with Sautéed Mushrooms and Vanilla
Chocolate-Dipped Vanilla Caramels
Roasted Apples with Salted Maple Cream
Lacquered Citrus Salad
Saffron-Vanilla Seafood Stew
Vanilla-Scented Roasted Cauliflower
Burnt-Sugar Pound Cake
Crêpes with Vanilla-Poached Apricots and Mascarpone Cream
Heh, here is a telling thing. I like to end my posts with quotations. I just went to three different sites, and could find not a single quotation about vanilla. But chocolate? Hoozy kabloozy, tons of quotes about chocolate. So just pretend these quotations about vanilla weren't actually first spoken about chocolate.
THOUGHTS FOR THE DAY: "Anything is good if it's made of vanilla." —Jo Brand
"Venice is like eating an entire box of vanilla liqueurs in one go." —Truman Capote
"I never do any television without vanilla. That's my motto and I live by it. Quite often I write the scripts and I make sure there are vanilla scenes. Actually I'm a bit of a vanilla tart and will eat anything. It's amazing I'm so slim." —Dawn French
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(Photograph of Patricia Rain, above, by Tana Butler, June 2004.)
Finally, it's time for the annual Weblog Awards...they're taking nominations for best photo blog here.
Thanks for visiting. Go visit Patricia, too. We should have a Real Vanilla blog event!