Few scents are more recognizable than that of vanilla, but a scientist from Oaxaca laments that only about 1% of the world’s population has smelled the real thing.
And now the danger is that its cultivation in Mexico is in danger of extinction.
Most products labelled as vanilla, said Araceli Pérez Silva, actually contain a synthetic scent obtained through “unconventional” methods.
“It’s made with wood residues, lignin [a class of complex organic polymers], guaiacol [a naturally occurring organic compound], and the Japanese have found a technique to produce it from manure,” said the researcher at the Institute of Technology of Tuxtepec.
“We’re used to synthetic vanilla, but the natural aroma is complex and sophisticated,” explained Pérez in an interview with the news agency Notimex.
She said the loss of tropical forests where the vanilla orchids are grown, mostly in Veracruz, Puebla and Oaxaca, has made vanilla more expensive and led to more production of the synthetic option.
A kilogram of vanilla pods can fetch as much as 5,000 pesos, or US $270.
“Vanilla is a product that was first domesticated in Mexico, we were the first world producer, Mexico was the country that made it known to the world, and what’s more, for 300 years we were the sole vanilla producer,” continued Pérez, considered one of Mexico’s leading experts in the plant.
But climate change, among other causes, has led to its decline. She cited Totonacapan in Veracruz, at one time world renowned for its vanilla, but cultivation is less viable now due to warmer weather.
So producers are looking for areas with less heat. More research is also required, Pérez said.
The scientist who has developed a passion for vanilla over the last 19 years is part of a group of Mexican scientists who belong to the Red Vainilla, or Vanilla Network, which is working towards making the cultivation of vanilla orchids socially, financially and environmentally sustainable.
“It would be catastrophic if forests were lost because we would no longer have natural vanilla, it will all be synthetic . . . .” she said.
“We must use and promote the use of more natural vanilla . . . we need to rescue a crop that is in serious trouble.”