The Story So Far
Vanilla is one of the most expensive of the world's spices along with saffron, cardamon and green peppercorns.
The cost of vanilla reflects its historic importance as a flavor used in the royal drinks
of the Mayans and Aztecs that were based on chocolate.
The Spaniards likened the bean pods to a little sheath or vaina, which is derived from the Latin word, vagina!
# The Totonaca people of the Gulf coast of Mexico were probably the first people to cultivate
vanilla. They taught many other indigenous people how to grow vanilla during MesoAmerican times,
and they continue to cultivate the fruit that they consider was given to them by the gods.
In the 15th century, Aztecs invading from the central highlands of Mexico conquered the Totonacs, and soon developed a taste for the vanilla pods. They named the fruit tlilxochitl, or "black flower", after the matured fruit, which shrivels and turns black shortly after it is picked. Subjugated by the Aztecs, the Totonacs paid tribute by sending vanilla fruit to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan
# Vanilla first left Mexico in the early 1500s on ships bound for Spain. It was originally
believed only to have value as a perfume. It wasn't until Cortes arrived in 1519 that the Spaniards
learned it was also a flavor.
# Until the late 19th century, Mexico had the monopoly on growing vanilla, but now Madagascar
and Indonesia grow the majority of the world's crop. Additional countries that grow vanilla
include Guatemala, Costa Rica, Uganda, China, India, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Fiji, Tahiti,
and the Philippines.
# The United States is the world's largest consumer of vanilla, followed by Europe -
especially France. About 1400 tons of dried vanilla is produced worldwide each year.
Our worldwide interest in natural vanilla has grown considerably in the past several years,
however, and the current annual demand is for 2200 tons of vanilla.
# The Coca Cola company is the world's largest individual consumer
When vanilla became popular in 17th century Europe, it was used for many indications,
varying from stomach ulcers to sedation. As was the case with many spices, it was extolled
as an aphrodisiac. Today, it may fulfill its latter function when used in high quality baked
goods, confectionary and desserts, although most users regard it more prosaically as a delicious
flavor that may help digestion. Vanilla is used to flavor tobacco and as a fragrance in the
cosmetic industry. It is of interest that sensitive workers in the vanilla industry may develop
vanillism, resulting in headaches and skin rashes.
Due to the value of vanilla, it trails a long history of robbery. For example, in Madagascar,
where vanilla theft has been a serious problem for several years, growers started "branding"
the individual green beans by poaching them. The markings remained after they were dried.
In that way, suspected stolen beans would be distinguished by the specific tattoo.
The market price of vanilla rose dramatically in the late 1970s, due to a typhoon.
Prices stayed stable at this level through the early 1980s despite the pressure of
recently introduced Indonesian vanilla. In the mid 1980s, the cartel that had controlled
vanilla prices and distribution since its creation in 1930 disbanded. Prices dropped
70 percent over the next few years, to nearly $20 USD per kilo. This changed,
due to typhoon Huddah, which struck early in the year 2000. The typhoon, political
instability, and poor weather in the third year drove vanilla prices to an astonishing
$500 USD per kilo in 2004, bringing new countries into the vanilla industry.
A good crop, coupled with decreased demand caused by the production of imitation vanilla,
have pushed the market price down to the $40 per kilo range in the middle of 2005.