Vanillin is the chemical that we all encounter in the world's most popular food additive, “vanilla” extract. Vanillin was invented as an inexpensive alternative for the real thing.
Real vanilla has to be extracted from the tiny seeds of a bean that grows on an orchid that is usually planted in mango or papaya groves to grow in the shade of the trees. Each flower of the orchid has to be collected by hand and carefully dried. Then the bean is shipped for repacking at distribution centers for retail stores. A single bean can cost as much as US $10 retail, and that one bean is used up in preparing a single dish.
The reason connoisseurs of vanilla are willing to pay so much for a vanilla pod is that the beans it contains possess a rich flavor profile. There are over 300 different flavors and aromas in natural vanilla. Vanillin is only the most memorable of these flavors. And vanillin is the only flavor you get in artificial vanilla extract.
Because reveal vanilla was once even more expensive than it is now, German scientists perfected a method of making artificial vanillin from pine chips in the 1870's. Most of the world's vanilla is still made from wood chips. Most of us have grown up on vanillin, rather than vanilla, and for nearly everybody, it tastes just as good. And that's the problem.
Our brains have specialized receptors for vanillin. These receptors respond to vanillin even when it is in food or beverages in concentrations too low for taste perception. Vanillin heightens our memories of food—and the food industry knows this.
Every brand of infant formula is flavored with artificial vanilla. Babies who are fed formula associate the flavor of artificial vanilla with the happy feeling of being held by mama for the rest of their lives. Food companies take advantage of this fact by putting artificial vanilla in nearly everything from cranberry juice to ketchup to bologna to spaghetti sauce, helping us all feel comfortable for reasons we can't quite put a finger on.
The bad news is, if you have been consuming vanillin in artificial vanilla extract all of your life, you are not going to lose your taste for vanilla now. The good news is, if you find you are addicted to some unhealthy food and just can't shake the habit, any food that contains vanilla may turn out to be just as satisfying.
Supermarket fruit and vegetable juices usually contain vanillin, especially vegetable juices that marketers feel the need to add “insurance” to make people buy them. If you just can't stop drinking a supermarket juice, try eating a tiny candy or treat made with vanillin. Real vanilla won't help you break the habit, although it can train your palate to appreciate a great range of vanilla flavors. And in general, if you have a food or beverage—such as Diet Coke—you can't stop drinking, use a little vanilla in a form you know to help you control your cravings in vanilla-laden foods and beverages that don't even taste like vanilla.
The German company that has been making vanilla since the 1870's, Symrise, recently announced that it had created a “non-vanillin alternative” to artificial vanilla that prevents excessive browning of baked goods. When this “artificial artificial vanilla” comes on the market, it won't feed the addictions that artificial vanilla feeds now, but you're undoubtedly still going to be better off with juices that rely on the flavor of fruits and vegetables rather than additives to taste good.