U.S. Vanilla Regulations—Time for an Update?


Krishna Bala, President, Flavor Innovations, Saint Louis, MO
Patrick Dunphy, Vanilla consultant, Northamptonshire, UK

The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the system of rules and regulations, sometimes called administrative law, published in the Federal Register by the executive departments and agencies of the U.S. federal government. The CFR is divided into 50 titles representing broad areas subject to federal regulation. Vanilla falls under Title 21: Food and Drugs, Volume 2, Part 169, Section 169.175-182.1

In recent years, a number of developments have prompted the industry to reassess the current position of vanilla in vanilla regulations. These suggest changes may be warranted to benefit regulators, manufacturers, consumers and importantly, vanilla farmers. The objective of this article is to describe the importance of quality vanilla in F&F, the current status of its supply and demand, deficiencies in the CFR, and opportunities to bring vanilla onto a sounder and progressive footing.

Importance of Vanilla

Vanilla, the world’s most popular flavor, is the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. Vanilla is ever popular because whether sweet or savory, simple or complex, vanilla compliments and enhances a wide variety of products, such as cookies and crackers, cola and candy, cakes and icing, syrups and sauces, ice cream, and Irish cream, soymilk, almond milk and flavoured milk.

Vanilla is the magic bullet of flavors because it of its use as a flavor enhancer in frozen desserts, baked goods, syrups, puddings and it is excellent to round out bitter notes in chocolates. Vanilla increases fruitiness and softens tartness in fruit flavors like strawberry, raspberry and others. Vanilla is also a primary ingredient in many perfumes and lotions.

Vanilla Supply Vs. Demand

The demand for natural vanilla is growing but overall production is flat globally. The impact of both cooking television shows and publications has, in part, stimulated consumer purchases of natural vanilla beans and extracts. Further, natural vanilla is no longer just the province of ice cream manufacturers. Now it appears in foodstuffs such as almond, soy, coconut and other health beverages, as well as protein bars and powders. Thus, quantity vanilla production is not keeping up with the rising demand.

An examination of U.S. vanilla imports shows the challenge of establishing a stable supply.2 On average, approximately 1790 metric tonnes (MT) of vanilla beans have been imported each year for the past 11 years. The lowest figure of 1500 MT was in 2005, while the highest was 2260 MT in 2007. In 2015, the United States imported ca.2098 MT, which is slightly above the average for the 11-year timescale.

Vanilla export data from Madagascar for combined vanilla beans, cuts and powder between 2008 and 2015, is similarly consistent.3 Madagascar has been exporting about 2200 MT per annum of beans/powder and cuts, of which the United States has imported about 77%. Based on this constancy of vanilla bean tonnages, one would expect prices to be stable; the current market, however, is anything but.

Madagascar currently has a monopoly on the global production of vanilla. From the year 2000, nearly 87% of the world’s output of vanilla beans originated here. Unfortunately, there currently is no buffer stock from good harvests to prevent prices from rising with bad harvests.

During the 1990s, Indonesia accounted for around 50% of U.S. vanilla imports but now it is only about seven. This is may be attributed to low prices, theft and lack of quality control among others. Uganda also experienced a significant decline in vanilla crops. In 2010, it produced more than 300 MT of cured beans but now only 2% of U.S. imports are from this central African country as a result of low prices, climate change and cocoa cultivation. India ceased producing beans when prices collapsed as a result of oversupply. The country is now recovering vanilla production but it will take up to three years to see significant results as it takes this length of time for the vanilla plant to start produce flowers. Papua New Guinea, once a major producer of vanilla, also produces virtually no Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla tahitensis.

Unsustainable Model

While Madagascar may be leading in vanilla production, it has faced several challenges. The 2013 harvest was large but produced very poor quality due to the extensive use of vacuum packaging practices linked to inappropriate curing. In 2014, Madagascar had a bumper harvest again and its quality improved, but due to late and smaller-than-expected flowering, speculators and illegal rosewood traders decided not to release vanilla to the market, in hopes of obtaining more money for the materials available. Unfortunately for the industry, the speculators were very successful.

Inevitably, when prices go up, quality goes down. In other words, when there is high demand and high prices, farmers harvest immature vanilla beans and cure improperly, decreasing the quality. Farmers also harvest vanilla beans before it is mature to prevent theft. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find extraction grade vanilla beans from Madagascar with 1.8% w/w vanillin.

Also, although vanilla is the world’s most popular flavor and second most expensive spice, the vanilla farmers in Madagascar remain poor and suffer from serious income insecurity. Around three-fourths of vanilla farmers in the northeast SAVA region of the country live on less than US $1 per day, which is not sufficient to provide adequate food for themselves and their families throughout the year. As noted, fluctuating prices and profit margins, the lack of community resources, poor product quality and theft make this an unsustainable model for farmers.

Much needs to be done in order to improve the farmer’s financial situation and introduce stability and sustainability into the vanilla supply chain.4 Currently, the only winners are the illegal traders, unscrupulous collectors and speculators.

Vanilla Standards

Standards of identity are mandatory requirements set by the government that state what food products must contain in order to be marketed commercially under certain allowable names. These mandatory standards protect the consumer by ensuring that product labelling accurately reflects what is contained in the food material. Vanilla is the only flavor in the United States that has a standard of identity, which is listed under the CFR.

Vanilla CFR

The current CFR for vanilla requires updating for several reasons. Being outdated, vague and a hindrance, as discussed here, it contributes to the current chaos in the vanilla market. Below are a number of sections from the CFR5 and comments regarding their deficiencies and ways to improve them. Note the area under specific consideration is CFR Title 21, Volume 2, revised as of April 1, 2014.

21 CFR169.3 (a). The term vanilla bean means the properly cured and dried fruit pods of Vanilla planifolia Andrews and of Vanilla tahitensis Moore.

Comment 1: Vanilla species.

It is not clear in the CFR why species such as Vanilla pompona and other hybrids are not included. It may be due to inferior flavor, or to the presence of toxic substances such as coumarin, which has a vanilla-like flavor but is found in Tonka beans.6 To date, there is no evidence for these propositions; in any case, they would not hold true based on detailed analysis of the wild, ripe, fruit of V. pompona ssp. Grandiflora from the Peruvian Amazon region.7

In this study,7 the concentration range for glucovanillin and seven key aroma compounds detected in uncured V. pompona ssp. Grandiflora fruits, after nine months post-pollination, were compared with the corresponding fruits of V. planifolia and V. tahitensis. Vanilla pompona gave glucovanillin content in the range of 5.86-9.88 g/100g dw of fruit, which was comparable to V. planifolia, with a level of 8.51g/100g dw. Further, the levels of benzylic compounds, typified by 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, were similar in these two species and mostly absent in V. tahitensis. V. pompona differed from V. planifolia with a high content of anisyl alcohol; the same compound was present in V. tahitensis.

In terms of flavor, V. pompona was therefore similar to V. planifolia with the additional presence of anisyl alcohol. It differed from V. tahitensis by its high glucovanillin content and benzylic compounds, and was similar to V. tahitensis by its high content of anisic compounds. On this basis, V. pompona represents an additional and alternative source of vanilla, alongside V. planifolia and tahitensis.

In addition, since vanilla has a standard of identity it would be a difficult to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to experiment with other species of vanilla. The evidence presented above, however, provides a strong case for the inclusion of V. pompona alongside the other two approved species.

Comment 2: “Properly cured.”

The vanilla curing process converts a ripe, green/yellow, unflavored vanilla bean into an aromatic, dark brown, highly flavored pod.8 However, the CFR does not explain what “properly cured” means. The vanilla industry would benefit if the curing of immature green vanilla fruit were prohibited; vacuum packing practices of uncured vanilla pods were outlawed; and proper hygiene during curing procedures were enforced.

First, the curing of immature vanilla fruit should be prevented since immature beans—even with science-based, novel curing practices, can only realize poor quality, low vanillin pods. Immature vanilla beans in general contain lower levels of the vanillin precursor glucovanillin. The efficiency of the curing process can be judged by the extent of conversion of glucovanillin to vanillin.9 In addition, immature beans lack the full spectrum of enzymes involved in flavor formation during the curing process.10

Furthermore, conversion ratios, i.e., the weight ratio of the ripe bean to the cured bean, are higher with mature vanilla pods, which result in less loss and waste. Good quality pods will deliver a quality extract with a preferred flavor impact. This greater flavor impact will require fewer vanilla pods, and these improvements will ultimately help the overall supply situation.

As noted, the CFR for vanilla should also emphasize the requirement to follow proper sanitary practices during the curing process, as there are a number of opportunities for microbial introduction and proliferation. Green vanilla pods are an agricultural crop that are exposed to human hands, dirty water, harvesting tools, storage containers, wild and domestic birds, animals and soil. The blanching operation, which should mitigate some of these issues, is often carried out with dirty, contaminated water and frequently under uncontrolled temperature and time conditions. Subsequent to the blanching step, fermentation, sunning and conditioning phase blankets are reused without washing, and these often are in contact with soil and grass; such microbiology associated with the traditional curing of vanilla beans has been described.11, 12

In relation, the FDA should prohibit the practice of vacuum packaging semi-cured vanilla pods. Farmers conduct this process as a way of “adding value” to the unprocessed vanilla bean. It usually involves blanching and may include partial fermentation. Following this unspecified and uncontrolled activity, the vanilla beans are then vacuum packed in clear plastic and stored before selling them to curing stations, which complete the curing operation.

The temporal and curing history of this pre-treated material is unknown, but this practice produces vanilla pods with low vanillin content and a negative flavor impact. In addition, unwanted aroma compounds frequently form due to microbial contamination. More importantly, however, vacuum packing of semi-cured vanilla pods can be toxic for humans since anaerobic conditions prevail in the vacuum packaged beans. These conditions are suitable for the growth of the Gram-positive spore forming rod Clostridium botulinum. This anaerobic soil bacterium produces a family of seven neurotoxins, four of which cause botulism in humans.13

C. botulinum can exist in the vegetative state or as a spore form. The spore represents the dormant state of the bacteria and exists under conditions unsuitable for the vegetative organism. Clostridium botulinum cannot proliferate in the presence of molecular oxygen. However, vacuum packaging is a suitable environment for this microorganism to propagate. During vacuum packaging, air is removed and the wet vanilla pods are enclosed in an airtight environment providing conditions suitable for spore germination and transformation into the vegetative stage. When the vegetative microorganisms grow to high densities, under low oxygen conditions, they produce botulinum toxins. The vegetative form of C. botulinum is readily destroyed by heat but the spores are very resistant. Temperatures well in excess of 100°C are needed to destroy the spores.14


21CFR 169.3 (b). The term unit weight of vanilla beans means beans containing not more than 25 percent moisture and representing 13.35 ounces of such beans (equivalent to 10.012 ounces dry weight).

Comment: Moisture content.

Here, in the case of vanilla beans containing more than 25% moisture, the weight of such beans should be considered as containing the equivalent of 25% moisture. For example, one unit weight of vanilla beans containing 33.25% moisture amounts to 15 oz of beans at 25% moisture. The moisture content of vanilla beans is determined by the method prescribed in the Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists.15 This method is incorporated in the CFR by reference, except that the toluene used is blended with 20% by volume of benzene and the total distillation time is 4 hrs. To prepare for analysis, pods are chopped into pieces approximately 1/4 in in length, using care to avoid moisture change.

21 CFR 169.3 (c) The term unit of vanilla constituent means the total sapid and odorous principles extractable from one unit weight of vanilla beans, as defined in paragraph (b) of this section, by an aqueous alcohol solution in which the content of ethyl alcohol, by volume, amounts to not less than 35%.

Comments: Dry weight and solvents.

The above 21 CFR 169.3 (b) and (c) could be simplified if the code declared that one gallon of single-fold vanilla extract is made with 283.85 g of moisture-free vanilla beans, equal to 10.012 oz of beans on a dry weight basis. It should also attach quality parameters to the extract and remove the limiting restrictions for the type of solvent to be used in preparation of the vanilla extract.

Quality parameters could include the content of vanillin and other key taste and aroma compounds extracted, thus specifying a preferred flavor profile. Other solvents, such as supercritical fluid extraction, should be considered where they realize extracts with specific flavor directions.

The current CFR is a hindrance to the development of cost-effective and environmentally safe extraction technologies, and the development of natural vanilla flavors and flavor enhancers. The CFR should prohibit the use of benzene and toluene for determining the moisture content of vanilla beans due to the established toxicity of these solvents. Alternative solvent-free, hazardless methods for determining the moisture of beans are available.15 The most suitable solvent-free method available is the thermo-gravimetric procedure exemplified by the Mettler Toledo Analyzer.16

Call to Action

Implementing change for vanilla regulation requires a group effort throughout the industry. Most flavor and food companies are members of the Flavor Extract Manufactures Association (FEMA). The authors here suggest developing a consensus among the members and petitioning the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for change.


A number of key areas in the current CFR have been identified where changes are proposed. If implemented, these could realize improvements in vanilla bean sustainability, handling, quality and processing.

For example, these suggested changes could stabilize the price and sustainability of vanilla crops for farmers particularly in Madagascar, and eliminate speculators. It could also open up additional sources for vanilla beans by using species such as V. pompona. Also suggested are quality parameters for ripe green and cured beans, improvements in sanitary conditions during handling and curing, and the prohibition of vacuum packing.

Finally, the unit weight of beans for extraction is recommended to be determined on a moisture-free, dry weight basis—and more accurate, solvent-free and less hazardless methods for moisture determination should be used. In relation, quality parameters for extracts should be defined and restrictions lifted for the type of solvents used in preparing the vanilla extract. Techniques, such as supercritical fluid extraction, generate possibilities for different extraction flavor profiles while meeting the defined quality parameters.

Acknowledgements: To vanilla farmers, without whom there would be no vanilla business.


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