The road to customer and consumer-winning flavors
When it comes to natural vanilla, consistency is king. While vanilla beans are sourced from all over the world, production centers in Madagascar, which yields up to 70% of the world’s supply. This heavily centralized production means that localized problems set off global crunches in pricing and availability, heavily impacting the demands on flavor chemists everywhere.
In recent years, typhoons have wrought havoc on Malagasy vanilla crops, causing some customer segments—including dairy, beverage and baked goods—to reformulate with natural flavors in lieu of pure extracts in an attempt to manage costs.
“That’s now in the past,” says Roy Johnston, Givaudan’s flavor ingredient business manager. Johnston should know. Givaudan is heavily committed to vanilla, producing various extracts and flavors at its East Hannover, NJ, site, which supplies the company’s global network. “We’ve had two straight years with no storm problems and excellent production,” Johnston continues. “So [the industry is] in a situation where supply and demand for beans is out of balance. Actually, for the industry, that’s a good thing. If you’re a vanilla bean grower it’s not so good, because [they’re] hoping to make a profit. That has implications for the future.”
Simultaneously, synthetic options—particularly synthetic vanillin and ethyl vanillin—have experienced tightening pricing and supply. This is due in part to the closure of a number of manufacturing sites. In addition, Johnston points out a food safety “issue with a benzene pathway used to make the molecule, which has now fallen out of favor.”
“Vanilla is the number one flavor in the world, followed by orange,” says Johnston, who fully expects this to continue. He explains this by citing vanilla’s intangible aromatic/organoleptic associations of well-being, “a sense of calm” and peacefulness. “I think those are the features of vanilla that have resulted in it being the number one flavor. It’s not the [aspect] that we can [record] with discrete quantified statistics.”
When it comes to vanilla and food, Johnston half-jokes, “it’s easier to think of applications that don’t use it than do.” Indeed, vanilla is used in almost every type of food—yogurts, ice creams, confectionery, beverages and baked goods—either as a characterizing flavor or as a segment of a more complex flavor system. To call this an opportunity for flavor companies is a vast understatement.
“Vanilla is becoming more interesting on the savory side,” says Johnston. “Usually, when we think of savory foods, or foods that are salt or protein-oriented, we think of spices and herbs—beef broth, chicken broth and so forth. But as we move into this fusion among ethnic cuisines, vanilla is going to play a role there. I think we’re going to see more and more vanilla used to nuance savory-type foods.” Robert Sloane, Givaudan’s global vanilla product manager, points out that his company has “taken a look at vanilla in practically all aspects of savory, from sauces on meats to rubs.”
Johnston sees the trend towards natural as a global phenomenon, a major boon for vanilla. The persistent downside, though, in flavors and fragrances, is that, “People have different definitions of what natural is. It’s still being debated.” But while there may remain industry and consumer confusion over what “natural” really means, demand is strong. Sloane has observed that, “Consumers [are moving] toward a more health conscious choice in buying foods. They select naturally flavored products, so a customer [company] may find that its label falls short of its customers’ expectations. They’ll ask us to create a natural version of an artificial flavor.” And with Wal-Mart’s recent push toward “green,” Sloane continues, “Organic is just taking off.” In response, Givaudan has worked to offer its customers (no doubt eager to heed the retail giant’s call) organic-suitable vanillas and flavors. Says Sloane, “That’s one trend we see as sticking around for quite a while.”