1. Edmond Albius
As the story goes, it was a twelve-year-old slave named Edmond Albius who discovered how to pollinate the vanilla plant. Vanilla reproduction is no easy feat. The orchid has to grow for three years before it can produce flowers, and may not even yield any pods until the fifth year. When the plant’s reproductive period begins, it only lasts for two months, during which time a single flower will only last for twenty-four hours. If the flower is not pollinated in the first eight to ten hours, it will close, drop from the vine, and die.
Next year will mark five hundred years since vanilla became known to Hernán Cortés, who took Mexico from the Aztecs and shipped the vanilla pods (known as beans) to Europe together with crates of cacao. It is said that Europe’s wealthy immediately fell for the Aztec emperors’ favorite drink—vanilla-flavored chocolate. The flavor soon became a staple in many culinary traditions—even prescribed as medicine—and the desire for mass-production quickly followed. Many nations such as France tried to undermine the Spanish monopoly by growing the plant outside Mexico. Though the pods were exported from the colonies, nobody knew how to reproduce the orchid outside its native land, where pollinators such as the Melipona bee assisted vanilla during its short window of fertility, until Edmond Albius discovered how in 1841.
The method was simple: using a thin stick or blade of grass, Edmond pulled open the anther and used his thumb to push it, with its pollen, into the stigma. Until this time, pollen would only cross this very short path on the back of a bee. As a slave, Edmond was rewarded for his unprecedented contribution to vanilla reproduction by being freed and being allowed to take a last name. Despite enabling today’s multi-million-dollar vanilla cultivation business worldwide, Edmond Albius never received any financial return for his discovery and died in poverty off the coast of Madagascar on the island of Réunion, still governed by France today. Depending on the annual yield, 40 to 80 percent of the world’s vanilla beans today come from that region.
While being a hermaphroditic plant—equipped with both reproductive organs—vanilla always relies on an external agent such as a bee or a bird to cross-pollinate with seeds from other vanilla plants, offering diversity and differentiation. Since Albius, vanilla vines have been mostly self-pollinated; a human-assisted vanilla orchid is fertilized with its own seed, and thus cannot diversify itself using its own genetic makeup. Only when pollen from another vanilla orchid is brought to the stigma, say, on the back of a traveling bee, can the plant receive new genes and continue evolving.
Edmond Albius demonstrated how we can reproduce vanilla forever, but demand quickly surpassed what the plant alone can provide to the vanilla industry. As a plant, flavor, or aroma, vanilla occupies a deep place in our cultural imaginary. It is one of the most popular spices in the world, flavoring everything from our ice creams, to chewing gums, skin conditioners, and medicine. While there are over a hundred species of vanilla, Vanilla planifolia is the most common, providing the majority of the world’s plant-derived vanilla flavors. Also known as “flat-leafed vanilla,” the plant is a fruit-bearing orchid—a type of vine—native to southeast Mexico. It is said that the Totonac people discovered the vine in the thirteenth century when they settled in the area, and the plant went on to play an important role in their mythology. The Aztecs who conquered the Totonacs called the fruits tlilxochitl—black flower.
Since then, vanilla’s story has been intertwined with many other narratives surrounding colonialism, slavery, global trade secrets, and industrialization. The few producing regions in the world—Madagascar, Mexico, Indonesia, Tahiti, and Papua New Guinea—are subject to political unrest, market manipulation, and natural disasters. Just a few months ago, Cyclone Enawo destroyed major vanilla-producing regions in Sava, Madagascar. The country typically produces over 40 percent of the world’s vanilla beans.
The cost of a pound of vanilla pods climbed from $11 in 2011 to $193 in 2016. Such prices make “authentic,” “pure,” “natural”—essentially orchid-derived—vanilla a premium delicacy and an expensive treat. Everything else, from car fresheners to shampoo, uses synthetic vanilla. It is estimated that 89 percent of all products labeled as vanilla flavored use chemically synthesized compounds. According to Symrise, a company that sources natural vanilla flavor, 18,000 products globally contain vanilla flavor.
While plant-derived vanilla extract has over two hundred compounds in it, its signature flavor comes from “vanillin” (C8H8O3). Since the 1970s, the compound can be derived relatively cheaply and in abundant quantities from Lignin vanillin or Ferulic acid, which are byproducts of paper pulp and rice bran, respectively. Compared to the labor involved in cultivating vanilla beans, vanillin production is a standardized industrial process unaffected by climate change or local politics. It also does not involve long waiting times for the orchid to mature and for flowers to bloom, or for the external pollinating hand. The price of synthetic vanillin is a fraction of that of the beans.
In recent years major food companies have declared a return to “natural” vanilla. While there is no legal definition for “natural” according to the US Food and Drug Administration, foods labeled as natural cannot contain “artificial” ingredients or preservatives. As their production can still involve antibiotics, growth hormones, or chemical processing, such products are no longer considered a “product of earth.” Given these unclear definitions, large companies’ turn toward the “natural” often resonates with consumers as marketing ploys or showings of strength, while they simultaneously attempt to gain leverage in the vanilla bean market by pushing out smaller suppliers and controlling prices with big purchasing power.
In reality, there are simply not enough vanilla beans in the world to supply the demand for “natural” vanilla. Moreover, switching from artificial to natural requires companies to rewrite their recipes or revisit their trade secrets, as the switch creates a change in taste. The “natural” flavor often needs to be complemented by other not-so-natural chemicals to match a previously desired or once agreed-upon flavor. Like coffee beans, vanilla sourced from different parts of the world also varies in taste, so switching from Madagascar to Mexican vanilla would create inconsistencies.
The industrial production of vanillin also saw a turn in recent years. Vanillin can now be synthesized using baker’s yeast with a process similar to brewing beer. The genes that encode vanillin can be inserted into the yeast microorganism through a fairly simple process, cheaply converting it to vanillin. When fed with glucose, billions of yeast enzymes inside a medium-size fermenter can produce hundreds of pounds of vanillin in a few days. This process, however, is toxic to the organism. In nature, plants synthesize vanillin as a way of defending themselves against microbial infection. Evolva, a company specializing in biosynthesizing flavors, works with a genetically modified strain of yeast that can make vanillin glucoside—a compound that is less toxic to yeast. With some post-processing, vanillin can be derived out of vanillin glucoside.
The taste of vanillin is by no means identical to vanilla flavor. It is an approximation, a substitute to address high demand. In terms of chemical composition, the synthesized and biologically derived versions of vanillin are identical. While both processes use different types of chemical tools—reagents versus enzymes—they produce effectively the same flavor in ice cream or toothpaste. Our tongues may be unable to distinguish between them if the flavor is simply vanilla enough.
According to US regulations, biosynthetic vanillin grown with the assistance of yeast or bacteria is considered a genetically-derived product but not a GMO (genetically modified organism), as we do not consume the live organism—only the flavor extracted. And as it is created through a living organism, it is also less synthetic than vanillin’s petrochemical production process using paper pulp and coal derivative, for instance. However, as a human-grown product it is as artificial as any other vanilla orchid that lives outside the rainforests of southeast Mexico.
Unlike the vanilla plant, vanillin exists in limbo between human taste and human consciousness, trying to negotiate the better of tastes shaped either by colonial cultivation and slavery or by the biotech-industrial-agricultural complex. Vanilla and vanillin’s stories also invite us to step outside the biochemical nostalgia of searching for the flavor in the plantation or in the lab, and to remind ourselves that we are not only missing the past taste of vanilla, but also our imagination of what else it could be.
3. Vanilla’s Queer Spring
Human intervention has already spread the orchid to places where it could have never traveled on its own. It has pollinated in lands where it normally could not without the support of other living beings. The changing of hands—from artificial pollination to industrial synthesis to microbial production—can perhaps help us to unhinge this complex history and project it against other futures, involving hands other than those of the human. No plant, no seed, no stick is necessary to make vanillin anymore. The orchids can take a break, since plenty of paper pulp and rice are available to make plenty of vanilla-scented car freshener spray. But none of these human hands can make vanilla queer again, to radically deviate from what it is, to explore what else it can become—a role that is usually assigned to evolution.
Vanilla and vanillin production is currently outside the scope of evolution. Vanilla orchids outside Mexico cannot genetically mix with each other and make new vanilla flavors. Vanillin, the most important element of the flavor, cannot mix with other compounds and turn into other molecules. We may well discover synthetically new mixes of compounds in a factory, but we will never know what the wild vanilla orchids’ flavor will be like in five hundred years. Nobody will live to see the results, nor guarantee a habitat for the vanilla orchids and their helper bees over such a long stretch of time.
The current desire to reproduce what already exists is a catch-up game we play with the wild. As long as we know what we want to reproduce, we can find a biochemical process to synthesize or derive it. But we do not know what we do not know. This tickles our imagination. We need new assistants—the equivalents of seeds, bees, sticks—to imagine the future of the flavor.
In 2009, scientists from Denmark explained how to turn yeast into a vanillin synthesizer. With some help from a biologist friend, you can find the genes that instruct baker’s yeast to make the flavor. Genes are essentially information—a sequence of letters (ACTG, ACGA, etc.)—that you can copy-paste into the website of a gene synthesis company, which will synthesize the genes by turning the information into chemistry, and then ship them to your doorstep in a small vial.
You can obtain baker’s yeast fairly easily. After watching an online video, you can manually insert the genes inside the yeast and feed the yeast with sugar and basic nutrients so it can start growing vanilla. You can use an ordinary jar to host your new vanilla plantation. Do not expect that in a couple of days or weeks you will grow enough vanillin to supply your family’s monthly needs. But it will definitely be faster than growing an orchid and keeping it alive for the next three years until it starts blooming. As long as you feed it, your yeast will grow, divide, and live according to evolutionary dynamics. You can even open the lid once in a while to check the smell.
Eventually, though, your yeast will begin to mutate, change, and deviate from the “norm” and become different from what it once was. Some yeast will drop the genes that instruct them to make vanillin. Others will pick up fragments of the genes and use them for making other molecules. Leftover vanillin will swim around in the jar and fuse with other chemicals. As the yeast and vanillin begin to evolve together into new futures, there will eventually be less hope of getting “vanilla” out of this little experiment. But hopefully there will be other things to taste, desire, and imagine from this nature-in-a-jar, instead of relentlessly comparing it to a dream that was once a flavor from a black flower.