Vanilla, Hurricane Hudah, and the OU Flavor Department

October 6, 2010

In order to get to Indospice, a vanilla bean export company deep in the jungles of Bondowasa Java, Indonesia, Rabbi Moshe Machuca arrives at a local airport, drives up, down, and around steep mountains, past fishing villages, thatched huts, caribou, monkeys, and exotic birds for five difficult, but colorful, hours until he reaches the plant. There he watches as workers at Indospice scald vanilla beans in vats of boiling water and set them in the sun for three to four weeks. The process, called curing, initiates a series of biochemical events within the vanilla bean that yields one of the most cherished, and expensive, flavors in the world: natural vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia grows only in the coastal regions of countries like Indonesia that lie along the temperate zone of the equator, the east-west line that bisects the planet. The vanilla beans take three years to mature. After the curing process, the vanilla beans are exported, almost entirely to the U.S. and Europe, where extraction companies typically remove the flavor by soaking the vanilla beans in an alcohol solvent. Multiple production steps, inherently limited supply, and typically high demand contribute to the fact that natural vanilla extract is second in cost only to saffron in the botanical flavor market.

But users of natural vanilla extract, principally the high-end American and European ice cream, confectionary, and cola companies, have generally had an easy time justifying the expense of using it. Natural vanilla extract is wonderful, and perhaps irreplaceable. It is a complex bouquet of diverse aromas; analytical techniques have identified over 250 different chemicals in vanilla extract, each one contributing a unique note, or aspect, to the flavor. And the fact that it comes from the vanilla bean enables its users to market their products as natural, or real, or pure, a distinct advantage in a society that longs for natural, real, and pure things.

Earlier this decade, however, some of these companies had to rethink the value of these advantages. In April of 2000 a tropical hurricane – meteorologists called it Hurricane Hudah – wiped out the precious vanilla fields of Madagascar. The vanilla buyers had been eagerly, and somewhat routinely, expecting that vanilla crop. The almond-shaped African island, about 60 miles from the coast of East Africa, regularly produced vanilla beans of excellent quality and did so in great quantity: in 2000 its vanilla beans would account for 1200 of the 2000 tons, or 60 percent, of the total market supply. And Madagascar’s well-stocked vanilla storehouses, which were also destroyed by the hurricane, were the closest thing to a supply guarantor in a relatively volatile market.

By the time the hurricane had done its damage the vanilla bean was an exceptionally rare commodity. Making matters worse, the scarcity could not be expected to correct itself for another four years: three years for the new crop to mature, and an additional year of shipping and processing would have to be waited out before the beans would get to the market. Only vanilla beans from places like Indospice, and a handful of other suppliers could be used. Prices quickly leapt. Just before April of 2000 vanilla beans were trading at $40 a kilogram. Prices leapt each subsequent year; $100, $150, $200… By early 2004 the trading price was $300 a kilogram. Buying vanilla at that price was like paying $3 for a red delicious apple when you’re used to paying 40 cents.

Companies that had never before considered doing so began to abandon, in part or in whole, natural vanilla flavor. And they replaced it with artificial vanilla flavor, a product that, while possibly not as rich or full in taste or as attractive in name, certainly, when done well, can hold its own.

When a flavor comes to the OU’s flavor department for evaluation, it appears as a group of chemicals, like this: Artificial Vanilla Flavor —Vanillin, Diacetyl, Maltol, Gamma Dodeclactone, Balsam Peru, Heliotropine.

Just as natural vanilla flavor is a bouquet of different notes, an artificial flavor is also a group of different notes. The difference is that a flavorist – the white-coat-wearing flavor chemist who composes the flavor – can pick and choose whatever notes (that is, chemicals) he or she wants to put into the artificial flavor, either to more faithfully mimic the real thing or to add an attractive, interesting, or fetching dimension not necessarily found in the original.

An artificial flavor must contain, in the language of the flavorist, a “primary characterizing agent,” the flavor that hits the target, so to speak, of the original. Vanillin (or ethylvanillin, which is similar in structure), the first item on the list, plays that role for vanilla.

Vanillin, to be sure, exists in the vanilla bean as well, and is responsible for the essential “vanilla” flavor, without any of the creamy, rich, or comforting accompanying notes. An OU company in the Norwegian forest produces vanillin and ethylvanillin from processed wood pulp. An ingenious description of how to use recycled newspaper print as a source of vanillin earned a Seattle inventor a U.S. patent. More recently, biochemists in England and Germany have brought to market a vanillin made from a fermentation of ferulic acid, which is found in rice and corn. According to the FDA’s definition of “natural flavor” this biochemical route merits that title.

But vanillin, no matter how it is produced, is a pale replication of the real thing. It needs other components to help round it out. A second class of chemicals provides “contributory items,” chemicals that are associated with, and may be found in, the target flavor.

In order to get some sense of what each of these chemicals contributes, I headed to Rabbi Abraham Juravel’s office. He keeps there, right on his desk, an egg-yolk yellow encyclopedia called Perfume and Flavor Chemicals by a New Jersey flavorist named Steffen Arctander. Rabbi Juravel keeps the volume around because it explains production methods for most standard flavor chemicals. But it also explains what they contribute. According to Dr. Arctander and some other sources we dug up, we found that:
Diacetyl contributes a buttery odor;
Maltol a warm, sweet, fruity odor;
Gamma dodecalacton a fatty-peachy, somewhat musky odor; and
Balsam Peru a rich, sweet, cinnamic, vanilla odor.

As a side note, “odors” is a term often used to describe flavors because, actually, much of our experience of a flavor is the way we smell it. There are only four, or possibly five, basic tastes that our taste buds are able to register. All the wonderful variation in flavors is sensed through smell.

Finally, there is the heliotropine. This chemical represents a third class of ingredients, called “differential items.” This class provides fixation, or roundness, to the ingredient, and has nothing at all to do with the taste of the actual target flavor. In some formulas a differential item may add nothing positive to the overall flavor profile but is added simply to confuse simulation of the flavor by another flavor house intent on copying the flavor.

Dr. Arctander suggests complementing vanillin with heliotropine “The most interesting effect of heliotropine as a flavor material,” he writes, “is probably that of being a synergist to vanillin.” It gives a considerable “lift” to artificial vanillin. Heliotropine, Dr. Actander writes, has a “sweet, spicy-floral taste of considerable power.” It comes from camphor or sassafras oil.

That’s vanilla flavor. It can be considerably longer and more complex, or simpler. The OU Kosher flavor department, at any rate, besides working on the day-to-day supervision of the companies, is faced with the task of evaluating each and every chemical in a formula, and retaining paperwork that supports the kashrut of each chemical.

It is now 2010. The market, since the days of Hurricane Hudah, has to some extent corrected itself. The argument for natural vanilla is more compelling than it had been just a few years ago. Vanilla exporters like Indospice are still going strong and Rabbi Machuca still takes his exotic drive to certify the plant. Back in New York, the OU flavor department is still keeping busy, thanks to the creativity of the flavorists charged with replicating vanilla’s distinct appeal. Whatever the choice, the OU flavor department is prepared to handle the application.

Rabbi Gavriel Price services the transportation, ingredients, and flavors industries at the Orthodox Union. He received rabbinic ordination from Breuer’s Rabbinical School in New York and a degree from Reed College, Portland, OR. A frequent contributor to BTUS, his “New Active Packaging Is Another Consideration in Kosher Certification,”appeared in the Spring 2010 issue.