Vanilla is easily one of the most popular and recognizable scents and flavors in the world. Once among the most precious substances in the world, it has been a highly sought-after plant since the height of the Aztec empire.
Now, the flavor is easily reproduced with synthetic chemicals, but pure vanilla remains in high demand, and at a high price. It’s the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron, because of the difficulty of growing the plant and extracting their essence.1
Vanilla isn’t just a delicious flavor, however. In addition to a range of other mental and physical health benefits, it’s a powerful anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and relaxant.
The History of Vanilla
A member of the orchid family, the vanilla plant (V. planifolia) is native to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Though many orchids are edible, vanilla is the only plant out of 25,000 orchid species that’s a cultivated food source. Vanilla was originally cultivated by the Totonacs before they were conquered by the Aztecs in the 1400s. The Totonacs used it in for everything from sweetening their drinking chocolate to adding flavor to cigars.
When the Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish, all of their riches were brought to Europe, including vanilla. However, it didn’t become popular in Europe until the 1600s when vanilla-flavored desserts became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. After that, the spice quickly became popular in France, where Thomas Jefferson first tried vanilla ice cream and brought it back to America. Vanilla has grown in popularity since, becoming the main ingredient not only in food and drink, but in perfumes and beauty products.
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Colonization and globalization brought vanilla plants around the world, but they remained notoriously difficult and time-consuming to grow and harvest. Before better fertilization processes were developed in the 1800s, there was only a window of a few days a year for vanilla plants to be fertilized, and once the seed pods are ripe, it takes several months of curing to bring out the true flavor.
Eventually, Indonesia and Madagascar became the world’s largest producers of vanilla, and Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla is considered the best in the world. Tahitian and Mexican vanilla, with slightly subtler tastes, are also very popular but not as highly prized.2
V. planifolia is an orchid on a growing vine that only blooms once a year and must be fertilized within that window. Once the plant has been pollinated, it develops a seed pod that looks much like a bean, which is why its fruits are commonly called “vanilla beans.” This is where the vanilla we know comes from.
However, when it comes off the vine, it doesn’t taste or smell anything like the vanilla we know. Producing the scent and flavor takes months of drying, curing, and extracting. Because of the fragile nature of the compounds in the vanilla beans, they can’t be extracted by most traditional means. Thus, vanilla extract is made by breaking up and filtering vanilla pods in a solution of ethanol and water.3
The main active compound is vanillin, which gives off the smell and taste we associate with vanilla. The higher the concentration of vanillin, the better the health benefits. An ideal vanillin concentration in an essential oil is 20–25 percent.
Normally, food grade vanilla extract only contains two percent vanillin, so it won’t have the same effect as the essential oil. While vanillin accounts for about 85 percent of how vanilla smells and tastes, the other 15 percent comes from a combination of 130 other components, and varies by plant species and region of growth. That’s what makes the difference between Bourbon-Madagascar, Tahitian, and Mexican vanilla.4
Though it’s challenging to harvest, vanillin is easy to synthesize. Imitation vanilla accounts for around 97 percent of the vanilla scent and flavors in the world—about 20,000 metric tons are produced and sold every year. Americans consume roughly 60 percent of it.
For this reason, it’s important to make sure that the vanilla essential oil you’re using is as pure as possible (with vanilla essential oil, it’s difficult to find 100 percent pure oil, but the higher the vanillin content, the better). The synthetic substance might smell similar but doesn’t provide health benefits.
What Is Vanilla Essential Oil?
Strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as vanilla essential oil. That’s because the extraction process for vanilla essence is different than the process for extracting essential oils, which are created through an expeller, steam distillation, or cold-pressing. Vanilla bean pods can’t be used in any of these extraction methods, so technically, there is no pure vanilla essential oil.
What there is, however, is pure vanilla extract by way of CO2 extraction or using a solvent like ethanol. When you’re choosing between these extracts, the higher the vanillin concentration, the more potent the product. So, when we discuss vanilla essential oil, keep in mind that we’re talking about products with a high concentration of vanillin—around 20 percent or higher— often in a carrier oil, which is extracted through a carbon dioxide process,5 or vanilla absolute, which uses alcohol to keep the thick extract properly diluted.6
Three main kinds of vanilla are used in vanilla essential oil:
- Oleoresin: A semi-solid resin extracted from vanilla bean pods using a solvent. This doesn’t completely mix with carrier oils, so there is often a residue in products.
- Absolute: A concentrated, thick substance also extracted using a solvent. This can easily blend into body products.
- CO2 Extract: A concentrate extracted from vanilla bean pods using high-pressure carbon dioxide that dissolves easily in carrier oils. This is the only one of the three that can be diffused.7
Uses for Vanilla Essential Oil
Vanilla is widely-credited as a calming substance that creates positive associations and evokes feelings of warmth and happiness. That’s one of the primary reasons that vanilla is used in so many bath and body products: it evokes such a relaxing sensation.
The Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York has used vanilla aromatherapy during patient MRI scans for nearly 30 years based on the premise that the scent calms feelings of anxiety and claustrophobia.8
Improves Sleep Quality
Vanilla works on both a physical and mental level to help you relax. It quiets the mind and relieves tension, so you’re lulled more easily to sleep. When used in a diffuser in the bedroom for a short period of time before bed, vanilla essential oil can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
Maintains Respiratory Health
Vanilla, especially on bedding pillows, has been shown to help you breathe easier at night because it promotes relaxation and affects the respiratory center in the brain.
The National Center for Scientific Research in France conducted a study in premature infants. It found significant improvement in sleep apnea when the infants slept on pillows containing vanillin.9
Defends Against Disease
In lab trials, vanilla has been shown to significantly reduce the presence of harmful bacteria like E. coli and Listeria. Vanilla has also been shown to stop bacteria from spreading and joining with other kinds of bacteria. This is the leading cause for the development of treatment-resistant bacterial strains.10
These properties have been attributed to the action of the eugenol and vanillin hydroxybenzaldehyde found in vanilla essential oil.11
Acts as an Aphrodisiac
The molecular structure of vanilla essential oil is similar to that of human pheromones. These are chemical substances produced and released into the environment by animals. So, vanilla scents are definitely an attractor, encouraging increased levels of estrogen and testosterone.
Relieves PMS Symptoms
Because vanilla essential oil has been shown to boost estrogen production, it can help alleviate symptoms of PMS like bloating, fatigue, and cramps, as well as better-regulate emotions.
Boosts Skin and Hair Health
Vanilla essential oil contains B vitamins that are important for healthy and shiny hair. Some people even say that it can help prevent hair loss! The niacin, thiamin, and pantothenic acid found in vanilla essential oil help promote skin health, keeping skin clear of acne and fending off free radical damage. It can also help prevent wrinkles, fine lines, and age spots.
Safety and Precautions
Vanilla essential oil is considered safe for inhalation and topical use when diluted in a carrier oil. It is not safe to apply pure vanilla essential oil directly to the skin. Likewise, it’s not safe for human consumption unless it’s food-grade vanilla extract sold in grocery stores.
As with most essential oils, using vanilla by women who are pregnant or nursing, as well as children, is discouraged.
Always conduct a patch skin test of the essential oil sensitive skin before using on larger areas of the body. Additionally, discontinue use if irritation occurs.
Remember, vanilla essential oil is expensive. If you find something for a significantly lower price, it probably includes synthetic materials or it contains other, less safe compounds.
So, it seems that vanilla is good for a lot more than just ice cream! Though calling something “vanilla” might suggest that it’s bland or uninteresting, you now know that this fascinating plant has many powerful health and wellness benefits. Perhaps that’s why it’s one of the most popular scents in the world and has so many positive associations.
Try incorporating vanilla essential oil into your daily routine by using it topically when diluted with a carrier oil or aromatically in a bath, a room diffuser, or a portable aromatherapy diffuser like Happy MONQ.