When a worldwide brand like Nestlé makes a shift in their ingredients, the rest of the industry follows. In February of 2015 when the company announced their plans to eliminate artificial additives from their chocolate brands, including Butterfinger, Crunch, and Baby Ruth, it turned the mass-market chocolate industry upside down. Using synthetic vanillin to counter the bitter taste of cocoa was suddenly frowned upon.
But the renaissance of all-natural vanilla is not without its challenges: Global production of natural vanilla is small and has been falling in recent years. Only less than 1% of vanilla comes from actual vanilla orchids.
Consumer demand for all-natural foods and beverages is high with giant food companies General Mills, Hershey’s, and Kellogg’s echoing Nestlé in their pursuit of getting rid of artificial flavors and additives.
According to John Leffingwell, head of flavor and fragrance market research firm Leffingwell & Associates, “Other brands weren’t going to do anything until a major player pushed it. With Nestlé being the biggest in the world, everyone had to follow.”
The increased demand for natural vanilla has flavor companies Symrise, International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF), Solvay, and Borregaard scrambling to find more sources of natural vanilla and launching initiatives to better the quality and quantity of bean-derived vanilla.
Embracing all-natural vanilla has food makers facing skyrocketing costs for natural vanilla, reformulation challenges, complicated labeling laws, and difficult questions about what is “natural.”
Market trends tracker Mintel says 2% of food products and 3% of beverages launched over the past year were advertised as vanilla-flavored. Symrise says 18,000 global products contain vanilla flavor.
Carol McBride, vanilla category manager at Symrise, says, “The amount of all the vanilla beans in the world is not sufficient to flavor everything that everyone wants to flavor with vanilla.”
The all-natural vanilla you expect to taste when you drink or eat a product with vanilla could actually be sourced from something other than vanilla beans. Solvay makes Rhovanil Natural vanillin by fermenting ferulic acid, a byproduct of rice bran oil; Mane uses eugenol from clove oil to make natural vanillin. Both ferulic acid and eugenol are expensive raw materials.
But compared synthesizing vanillin from petroleum or extracting it from vanilla beans, bioconversion via yeast and bacteria have its challenges. High concentrations of both are toxic. Vanillin is in the same boat. All three are made by plants as antimicrobials.
Currently, the industry is giving no clear indication whether vanillin made from genetically modified organisms will be adopted or marketed. Biotechnology firm Evolva developed a process to get around toxicity problems by feeding glucose to a genetically modified microbe that produces vanillin glucoside. But this microbe is considered a processing aid.
Would vanillin pass as a natural ingredient?
It could fall under GMO labeling requirements as a no-artificial-ingredient but the Non-GMO Project says foods with ingredients made with synthetic biology are not allowed to bear their voluntary label.
A product made with the flavor would not fall under U.S. GMO labeling requirements and could lend itself to no-artificial-ingredient claims. On the other hand, the Non-GMO Project says foods containing ingredients made with synthetic biology will not be allowed to carry its voluntary label. They claim there is no evidence-based testing that affirms synbio products are safe.
Food makers that steer clear of petroleum-derived ingredients but that aren’t looking for an all-natural label can turn to Borregaard. The company offers a vanillin that is derived from plants but is much less pricey than either real vanilla or other alternatives. Synthetic vanillin costs $10 per kilogram.
Amie Byholt, the company’s U.S. director for sales and marketing, says, “While Borregaard’s vanillin is considered artificial by regulators, many food makers prefer it over vanillin because of its sustainability.” Borregaard’s vanillin is made from a renewable raw material in a facility that uses 90% of its biomass in products and the rest for energy.
To help prevent any future vanilla crisis, flavor companies Symrise, Givaudan, Mane, and IFF are working together on vanilla grower programs in Madagascar. The country’s northeastern region has the world’s best combination of climate and farm labor economy for vanilla production.
The question still remains to be answered. Is there enough vanilla in the world to meet the demand? McBride sums the solution perfectly.
“We need to grow more vanilla beans. We need to safeguard the sustainability of vanilla so that we can enjoy vanilla for generations to come.”