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Industry Snapshot: Vanilla 2009 Conference Day 2

By: Rick Brownell, Virginia Dare
Posted: February 1, 2010

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O’Neill’s presentation was followed by a discussion on “The Hazards of Monoculture – Does it Apply to Cultivated Vanilla?” by Chaim Frenkel, professor of plant pathology at Rutgers University. Frenkel explained that while pathogens such as Fusarium and their host plants are in an evolutionary race for survival, vanilla may not be adapting to change as quickly as Fusarium in part because of its limited genetic diversity. Thus, as a result of generations of propagation almost exclusively by cuttings, vanilla is largely a monocultural crop, he said.

Further, to illustrate the potential problems of monocultures, Frenkel showed an excerpt from a documentary film based on the book, The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. The film chronicled the history of potato cultivation in Ireland beginning in the 1500s. The potato provided the foundation of the diet for a vast majority of the Irish population, which found that the crop thrived in the poor soil conditions that existed throughout the country. The Irish potato crop was almost entirely based on a single variety—a classic monoculture. In the early 1840s a pathogen believed to have arrived on a vessel from South America infected the Irish potato crop. Within just three years, the potato industry was virtually wiped out and one out of every eight Irish people had died from starvation or related disease.

Although the recent outbreaks of Fusarium among the vanilla vines in Madagascar have occurred at levels never before reported, they have not nearly approached the magnitude of the Irish potato blight. However, the documentary was sufficient for the audience to draw a chilling comparison; the result of these insights are likely to provide new impetus for initiatives like those suggested by Bayman and O’Neill.

Misconceptions vs. Facts

Dwelling deeper into safety concerns of vanilla, Premier Vanilla’s Arvind Ranadive presented “How Safe is Your Vanilla?” Explaining a common misconception that the high alcohol content (not less than 35%) of vanilla extract eliminates any microbiological concerns, Ranadive said that many yeasts and molds can, in fact, tolerate a high alcohol environment. However, the water activity levels in vanilla beans and extracts are generally not conducive to pathogenic bacteria growth, he said.

Suspicious that some yeasts and molds could actually be contributing to flavor development during the curing process, Ranadive suggested that high levels of microorganisms in vanilla extract may contribute more to taste, aroma and texture of the product, rather than presenting a toxicological threat. Even so, he pointed out that good sanitation procedures are important during the curing and extraction processes.

Aroma and Taste

The final presenter was Patrick Dunphy, a consultant with more than 35 years of flavor industry experience. In his presentation, aptly titled “Vanilla: It’s All a Matter of Taste,” Dunphy said that a despite the widely accepted fact that vanilla extract contains more than 250 individual compounds, there is still a great deal to be learned about the contribution each one makes to the overall taste and smell of vanilla. He further highlighted recent studies that shed new light on this highly complex subject. Green vanilla beans have no recognizable vanilla odor, Dunphy explained, adding that it is during the curing process that aroma compounds are formed. Dunphy cited a recent study by A. Perez-Silva published in Food Chemistry that identifies almost 25 of these aroma compounds that are considered to be particularly important. He also explained the chemical pathways either known or suspected to result in the formation of these key aroma compounds.

Turning next to taste and mouthfeel compounds, Dunphy stated that far less is known about them. One such compound is divanillin, which was reported in Perfumer & Flavorist magazine (Gatfield et al.) in 2006 to contribute creamy, fatty character to certain flavors and mouthfeel to certain foods. The study found that these effects were perceptible at the levels of concentration of divanillin in vanilla extract made from Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans. Another study, published in the Journal of Agriculture in 2008 (Schwarz et al.) identified nine velvety, mouth-coating compounds isolated from cured vanilla beans. At least one of these, americanin A, had not previously been linked to vanilla, Dunphy pointed out.

Dunphy concluded that this area of research provides great opportunities for flavor development in vanilla extract. Once the key flavor and aroma compounds are identified and the enzymatic pathways that lead to their development during curing are understood, one might be able to tailor the curing process to produce more or less of targeted individual compounds.