Vanilla rant

Despite much discussion in the forum, and at Academy of Chocolate meetings, I’m still left confused as to what is and what isn’t real vanilla. Both EU and US law seems pretty confusing on this. We live in world where food labelling laws allow something called ‘natural vanilla flavour’ to mean an additive that may or may not contain a proportion of chemical ‘vanillin’ – potentially made from paper, bacteria, or worse.

Reading the above, boffins (and other industrial food lobbyists) will of course get busy and tell us that vanillin produced in the lab (by which they mean vast industrial plants, not cosy hotbeds of discovery) – that this vanillin is ‘nature identical’ to the vanillin naturally found in the crystals that form on the outside of a vanilla pod. This may be so, but this is to misunderstand and hugely over-simplify the real nature of food flavouring. Vanillin may contribute 90% of the flavour notes of natural vanilla, but it is the complexity of the many hundreds of other compounds in vanilla that make it the fabulous yet subtle flavouring dating back at least to the Maya and now known the world over.

The point is, you can’t simulate a real, complex vanilla flavour from a single chemical any more than you can reproduce the real scent of a rose (arising as it does from literally thousands of constituents) from one chemical constructed by experiment, or – heaven forbid – the flavour of chocolate from something that might have been derived from cow bones. (YES! As long as it started from an organic source, it can be called ‘natural flavour’ – be warned!)

Furthermore, I really don’t buy the argument that vanillin from a lab is identical to the most important part of the flavour content of a vanilla pod. The research might say this, but my taste buds (ok, olfactory sense) say different. We’ve probably all tried cheap chocolate boldly proclaiming the word ‘vanillin’ in its ingredients – as if this was something good – and been disappointed by the result. Ok, one argument goes that there are different qualities of vanillin and that some are better than others (a bit like Margaret Thatcher informing us there are some ‘reasonable’ people in the Khmer Rouge …) but for me this just furthers the argument that the lab version can only simulate the real thing. Experience has shown that vanillin flavoured bars often taste tainted and have a poor length. This is compounded by the use of poorer cocoa beans by manufacturers who also don’t think it is important to use real vanilla in their chocolate, plus a tendency to use too much of the vanillin to compensate for the bean quality.

Those of you who managed to read this far might be wondering what the message of this sermon will be. Well, it’s simple really. I would advise you to read labels carefully, be sceptical about what you find in ingredients lists, and wherever possible only choose chocolate that actually says the vanilla comes from the vanilla pod – be wary of just the words ‘vanilla’, or ‘vanilla flavour’ or ‘natural vanilla’ – you can’t be sure what you’re getting. ‘Bourbon vanilla’ by the way is probably good, but I’d always prefer to read ‘Bourbon vanilla pods’, just to be sure.

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