Called vanilla planifolia, the vanilla orchid sprouts an array of fragrant flowers and grows on a host tree in hot, sticky, and wet climates – sometimes up to 12 feet tall. Vanilla essence is extracted from the long, greenish-yellow seed pods of this plant, which are picked unripe and cured in alcohol until they turn a dark shade of brown. Pure vanilla essence is composed of 35% alcohol and this process can often take up to six months.
Growing vanilla is considered one of the most labor-intensive processes in agriculture. The pollination of the plant must happen within 12 hours of the plant flowering and can only be done by the bees of the Melipona genus. It was this genus of bees that gave Mexico a 300-year monopoly on the production of vanilla. That was until 1841, when Edmond Albius, a 12-year old slave on the French island of Reunion in the Indian ocean, found a way to hand-pollinate the plant using a sliver of bamboo or a blade of grass. This method for pollinating the vanilla orchid is still used today. French colonists used Albius’ method of hand pollination in Madagascar, and the country, today, remains the leading cultivator of vanilla in the world.
Vanilla was first grown by the Totonac Indians of eastern Mexico, who believed that vanilla was the food of gods. They used to make a drink out of the vanilla bean, which they believed had aphrodisiacal properties, over and above its rich flavor and taste.
When the Aztecs conquered Totonac in the 1400s they too were vastly impressed with the properties of this plant and began using it in a similar fashion as the Totonac Indians. It came into the hands of the rest of the world around 1520, when Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez conquered the Aztecs.
For a long time, vanilla remained a privilege of the rich and famous. The word vanilla finds its roots in the Spanish word ‘vainilla,’ meaning small black pod. The first documented use of vanilla in flavoring can be traced back to 1602, when an apothecary to Queen Elizabeth I, named Hugh Morgan, started using vanilla as a flavoring.
Benefits of Vanilla
Whether as an additive flavor in food or as a fragrance for personal health products, candles, or medicines, vanilla is widely used today. While a nice cup of vanilla ice-cream is an olfactory delight to many, not much is known about the health benefits of vanilla.
Vanilla essential oils are considered to have antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and antidepressant properties. Vanilla is also used as an aphrodisiac, febrifuge, and as a relaxing agent.
The central chemical component of vanilla is vanillin. It contains small amounts of B-complex groups of vitamins, which are helpful in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function, and regulating body metabolism.
Has Antioxidant and Anticarcinogenic Properties
Oxidation is related to organic issues and infections faced by the human body. The free radicals called oxidizers burn living cells and tissues causing many problems in the human body. These free radicals can also cause mutation in DNA, resulting in cancerous tumors.
Vanilla essential oil has properties that neutralize these free radicals and makes it act as an antioxidant to protect the body against damage. It keeps the body sound at a cellular level by neutralizing the free radicals and preventing them from causing mutation in the cells, and helps heal any damage that has already been done. It also has properties that keep the body safe from colon cancer and prostate cancer.
The ancients were of the opinion that the vanilla drink has aphrodisiacal properties and aromatherapy and studies have suggested that vanilla may increase sexual desire by boosting testosterone and estrogen levels.
Vanillin, present in vanilla essential oils, helps clear skin problems, such as pimples and acne, which is why it is a widely used product in the cosmetic industry.
Helps Lower Body Temperature
Acting as a febrifuge, vanilla effectively reduces fevers and fights infection. It contains eugenol and vanillin hydroxybenzaldehyde, heavyweights in the body’s bouts against infections. It also contains antiphlogistic properties in its arsenal, which help reduce inflammation from fevers.
Try this the next time you are feeling blue: grab yourself a vanilla-flavored drink or ice-cream, because vanillin hydroxybenzaldehyde is proven to be an effective antidepressant and mood-lifter. The sweet and soothing smell of vanilla works as a mood-lifter for many people.
A Soothing Agent for the Body
Vanilla acts as a mild sedative and helps in soothing inflammation in the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, nervous, and excretory systems. It is also a great help in reducing convulsions, anxiety, stress, and hypersensitivity to allergies.
Helps in Weight Loss
Some studies indicate that the efforts of people to lose weight can be aided with the regular administration of vanilla under the guidance of a dietitian. However, it is never a replacement for a healthy diet and exercise.
How many times have you felt nauseated and someone suggested vanilla ice-cream? Vanilla extract, a few drops worth, added to a glass of water or vanilla tea, can also help calm the stomach.
Cough syrup manufacturers have long since used vanilla extracts to mask the taste of cough medicine. Its mild anesthetic and anti-inflammatory properties can also help ease sore throats.
Vanillin positively affects the central nervous system and is an effective pain reliever making it beneficial in fighting toothache and infection.
Relieves Menstrual Issues
Women with irregular periods are often advised to consume vanilla extract products to help regulate their cycles.
Vanilloids activate neural receptors in the same way as capsaicin (present in peppers). They help in increasing mental performance and aid synapse; however, cooking vanilla can destroy these benefits.
Research indicates that vanillin may actively prevent microbial growth on food items. This can make it an apt candidate for food preservation, reducing the need of artificial preservatives.
Vanilla has found extensive uses in aromatherapy, with research showing that it can help alleviate stress and induce a feeling of calmness.
Today, the uses of vanilla in food preparation outstrip its uses for health and medicinal purposes, but needless to say, the ancient Totonac Indians were on to something. There are wide and varied uses to this unique orchid and we have only just scratched the surface.