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Vanilla is a popular flavor in ice cream as well as other foods. Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images
  • Vanilla is one of the most expensive spices to produce.
  • New research has uncovered the most critical molecules in vanilla that cause people to like it.
  • Synthetic flavors can be made more cheaply, quickly, and consistently than their natural counterparts.

Vanilla has become so ubiquitous that to describe something as “being vanilla” means that it’s ordinary. Nothing special.

But you wouldn’t know it by the price.

Vanilla is a labor-intensive crop, making it the second-most expensive spice in the world (the first being saffron).

New research presented at the fall meeting this week of the American Chemical Society may have cracked the vanilla code, providing a potential path to making a convincing artificial vanilla flavoring.

How did they do it? And do we even understand what “flavor” means?

The study presented today hasn’t been peer-reviewed or published yet.

In it, researchers used a technique called untargeted flavoromics to find out which chemicals in vanilla people most liked.

“Flavoromics can identify the overall connections and interactions of flavor compounds and other molecules, directly and indirectly, relating to flavor,” Joonhyuk Suh, PhD, an assistant professor of food science and technology at the University of Georgia, told Healthline.

Suh explained that statistical modeling, sensory evaluation, and even machine learning can all be used together to determine how different chemicals work in concert to create a specific sensory experience, such as the experience of vanilla flavor.

The concept behind flavoromics isn’t new and experts consider it to be a valid tool.

Emily Mayhew, PhD, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at Michigan State University, told Healthline, “It’s very common in the food industry to link ‘liking’ to specific sensory properties. If you work on ice cream you might want to know if its creaminess makes people like it more or like it less. This is just taking it one step further to find the specific molecules in the food that are driving the liking.”

This study revealed 20 compounds that together determined whether people generally liked a particular vanilla extract.

Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, a professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition and the Director for Psychophysical Research at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, told Healthline that flavor might not be what you think it is.

“A dictionary will probably tell you flavor is some kind of integration between taste and olfaction. That’s actually not correct,” Bartoshuk said.

Flavor is a sensory experience distinct from both taste and smell.

So why the confusion?

“The problem is language. If I say I taste sugar, you don’t have any trouble understanding what I mean. Same thing if I say I smell cinnamon. But what happens if I tell you I flavor cinnamon? We don’t have a verb for the perception of flavor, so we borrow taste,” Bartoshuk said.

“We have receptors on our tongue to detect sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami; and there’s growing acceptance for fat as a basic taste as well,” said Mayhew.

Oftentimes these are not the words we use to describe our food, though.

“If I hand you a bowl of ice cream and I ask what flavor it is, would you say ‘sweet?’ No, you’d say ‘vanilla.’ Intuitively you know the difference between taste and flavor,” Bartoshuk said.

But then where does flavor come from?

“When you chew and swallow, odors enter your mouth and go up through a space called the retronasal space. Think about postnasal drip, That’s the retronasal space. Volatiles go up and enter your nose from the back,” Bartoshuk said.

“Your brain knows the difference between this and sniffing volatiles in through your nostrils. When it comes from your mouth, your brain sends the information to a different area,” she added.

So, smells are from your nostrils, tastes are from your tongue, and flavors are from the passageway between the two.

If researchers found 20 key vanilla compounds, what can be done with that information?

In their presentation, they described how it can take up to 9 months to traditionally cure vanilla beans. This is one of the reasons for vanilla’s high cost.

“Natural flavors have a lot of volatiles and they don’t all contribute equally. You can find as few as three volatiles that will make a rough approximation of a flavor. That’s why artificial flavors are so popular. You can make them cheaply with a smaller number of volatiles,” said Bartoshuk.

Artificial vanilla is often only one compound: vanillin. But that’s not necessarily enough to fool our senses.

Have you ever had cherry cough syrup and thought it tasted just like fresh cherries? Unlikely.

Why is that?

“The natural cherry probably has three volatiles that are really important for flavor, and then it has many others in the background. Somehow that whole profile is stored in your brain as natural cherry. If you then take only those three main volatiles, there’s just enough of the profile to remind you of cherry flavor, but it’s just not as good,” said Bartoshuk.

“But can you still tell it’s synthetic when it’s 10 flavor compounds, or 20, or 50? I think it depends on the food,” said Mayhew.

If that sounds like a lot of chemicals in your food, it may not be something to fear.

“When you eat a food or you smell a flower, what you’re experiencing is chemical. Chemicals aren’t inherently bad or dangerous, but in fact, we interact with chemicals every time we smell or eat,” Mayhew said.

“I think there’s a lot of chemophobia — [fear of chemicals] — associated with the food that people eat. In reality, all flavor is chemical,” said Mayhew.