Demand for vanilla drives up prices

 homemade vanilla extract

It's difficult to imagine baking without vanilla. The flavor is ubiquitous in everything from pies to cakes to cookies. Other desserts like puddings and pastry cream also rely on it distinctive floral and fruity flavor notes. Growing consumer demand for all-natural products, coupled with other factors, has spiked demand in real vanilla, causing prices to shoot skyward.

Even though vanilla is one of the most commonly used flavorings in the world, you may be surprised to learn how difficult it is to produce. Vanilla is made from the fruit of a tropical orchid native of Mexico. In its native habitat, the plant is pollinated by insects, but when grown in other locations, each flower must be hand pollinated, a labor-intensive process. 

That is only the beginning of the work needed to make vanilla ready to use in baking. Each seed pod must be individually harvested at the peak of ripeness - no mass harvesting is possible. After the seed pods are picked, they have to be "sweated" for several days to develop the vanilla flavor. Once that process is complete, the pods (commonly called beans) are then slowly dried over several weeks. The traditional method involves laying the pods in the sun for a short period each day, then bringing them back inside so they don't get scorched. If the drying occurs too rapidly, some of the volatile aromatic compounds may be lost. 

About a decade ago, demand for real vanilla was flagging and the price was too low to justify the work involved in producing it, so many farmers abandoned their operations. Now, as consumers turn away from artificial flavorings, demand is far outpacing supply and the price has skyrocketed. A bag of Madagascar vanilla beans now fetches ten times the price it did just a few years ago.

There is potential relief on the horizon, as farmers are rebuilding plantations. Recent weather events put a huge dent in the crop, however, so the price won't be dropping any time soon. It takes a plantation four to five years to reach full production, so expect the cost of vanilla to remain high for some time to come. 

Photo of Vanilla extract from Sweet Confections by Nina Wanat

1 Comment

  • Globegal  on  6/18/2017 at 3:44 PM

    Have been making my own vanilla for the past 6 years or so. Have enough so didn't bother this year. Had no idea of the shortage. When I just checked the price for 1 pound of beans, it was $395 rather than $35. Awfully glad I have enough to ride this out.

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