Vanilla is found in an estimated 18,000 products worldwide, but down the track, genetic modification might be the only way to satisfy our hunger for natural vanilla.
With increasing demand for natural vanilla over synthetic derivatives, vanilla farmers simply can’t keep up.
Vanilla orchids historically relied on a special bee native to Mexico for pollination. But it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that farmers discovered they could use a stick to spread pollen onto the reproductive parts of the orchid and hand-pollinate it.
This same basic but time-consuming method is still used today in Madagascar, the source of about 80% of the world’s natural vanilla.
While chemists have successfully synthesised vanillin – the main flavour compound of dried vanilla beans – it’s only the key taste; it doesn’t encompass the whole flavour experience of real vanilla.
With demand for natural vanilla driving prices sky high, scientists are trying to find the key genes responsible for producing the sweep of flavours found in natural vanilla.
Rather than building more orchid plantations or relying on synthetic vanillin, they’d then insert these genes into plants or microbes to produce the authentic flavour compounds.