.diagram: structure of vanillin

Annual Production

4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde, commonly called vanillin, produces the familiar taste and smell of vanilla. For the Totonaco Indians of Mexico, vanilla was a sacred plant, used in religious ceremonies. The Aztecs, who defeated the Totonaco, used it as a flavouring in the 14th - 16th centuries, and the Spanish explorer Cortez brought both chocolate and vanilla to Europe in about 1520. Vanillin, the main component of natural vanilla, has many similarities with other flavour compounds.

Vanillin was initially extracted from the seed pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, and although this extract is 98% vanillin, the remaining 2% gives natural vanilla a flavour and smell distinct from pure vanillin. Demand for vanilla flavouring eventually outstripped production, and as far back as 1875 a synthetic route was devised, only 20 years after the isolation and identification of vanillin.

image: a vanilla pod after curing

photo: vanilla orchid

Production figures

Synthetic Vanillin Production 11,880 tonnes
Natural Vanillin Production 120 tonnes
Total Production 12,000 tonnes
World production per year

The total annual production of vanillin is very small compared with a bulk chemical like ammonia (130 million tonnes worldwide).

Although vanilla extract from pods is still used by the food industry, this accounts for less than 1% of vanillin production. The remaining 99% is obtained through synthetic routes. The lower cost of synthetic vanillin has enabled its use as a chemical intermediate, and food use now accounts for less than 50% of vanillin produced.


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