As you can imagine, I love reading labels! Since Chagrin Valley Soap started making lots of products with vanilla beans, I began reading product labels with the word “vanilla” in their title. I was curious as to what vanilla “flavoring” was being used. What surprised me was how many products claimed to be made with “vanilla essential oil.”
Why was I surprised?
Because there is no such thing as "vanilla essential oil.”
There are vanilla extracts, vanilla infusions, vanilla absolutes and vanilla fragrance oils—but no true pure vanilla essential oil! Often times vanilla is labeled an "essential oil" when it is actually an absolute, CO2 extract or another blend. Before I explain let’s talk a bit about the vanilla bean.
The Vanilla Bean Saga
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and grows as a vine. The vine produces long stringy seed pods which are the vanilla beans. The Vanilla genus has about 100 species, but the main species harvested for vanilla flavoring is Vanilla planifolia or Flat-Leaved Vanilla. Although it is native to Mexico, the world's largest producers of vanilla are Madagascar and the island of Réunion.
The distinct flavor of vanilla comes from the fruit or bean pod, but the story of the bean begins with the greenish-yellow orchid blossom. One blossom will produce one bean. The blossom, which opens for only one day for a few hours, must be pollinated in order to produce fruit.
When the first vanilla orchids were brought to Europe, the vines would grow and produce flowers, but no pods. Unfortunately, this orchid has only one natural pollinator -- a small bee native to Mexico. In the 1800’s, advances in hand-pollination methods permitted vanilla to be grown in other tropical climates. Even today, the plants must be hand pollinated or there will be no vanilla bean.
After pollination, the beans take six weeks to reach full size and an additional nine months to mature. The beans, each of which contains thousands of tiny seeds, are hand-picked while still green and have to cure for about six more months before they have the characteristic aroma and flavor of vanilla.
During the curing process, the beans are laid out in the Sun during the day and then, while warm, are wrapped in blankets and allowed to sweat overnight. This process causes the beans to shrink and concentrate their flavors.
Why No Vanilla Essential Oil?
Aromatic essential oil compounds are stored in tiny pockets in plant material and must be extracted to be used. The type of plant material (leaves, flowers, roots) being used determines which method of extraction will produce the best results.
The International Organization for Standardization, Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, defines an essential oil as . . .
“a product made by distillation with either water or steam or by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials.”
Basically, this means that true essential oils must be extracted by physical means only—no solvents of any kind.
The aromatic compounds of the vanilla bean cannot be obtained through distillation or mechanical means. Vanilla beans cannot tolerate the heat required for steam distillation, and mechanical pressing will not produce any oil. Vanilla beans need a solvent in order to release their aromatic compounds! Therefore, they cannot be called essential oils.
What Are These So-Called “Vanilla Essential Oils?”
There are vanilla aromatic or flavoring products that come from real vanilla beans, but none are true essential oils due to their extraction methods.
- Vanilla Extract: Vanilla extract is the most common form of vanilla used today. It is made by soaking chopped vanilla beans in alcohol and aging them for several months to extract the flavor. In the US, in order for a vanilla extract to be called pure, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the vanilla extract to contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of alcohol. Pure vanilla extract is expensive. Beware of bargain brands, they are usually adulterated. Vanilla extract is great for baking, but not for personal care products.
- Oil Infusion: Steeping vanilla beans in oil produces an excellent aromatic oil. We use vanilla bean oil infusions for our vanilla bean products. We steep organic vanilla beans in organic oils for weeks, until the aroma is perfect. Organic vanilla beans are very expensive (over $100.00 a pound). The oil infusions have a rich, warm, sensual aroma that holds up beautifully in lip balms, creams, and scrubs.
- Vanilla Absolute: Absolutes are similar to essential oils. They are very concentrated aromatic extracts from plants. However, while essential oil extracts can be produced using steam distillation or expression, absolutes require the use of a solvent. Vanilla absolute can be made using solvent extraction. Read more about "How Essential Oils Are Extracted"
- Vanilla CO2 Extract: CO2 essential oils are extracted using carbon dioxide under high pressure. Although CO2 is technically a solvent, there will be none remaining once it is turned from a liquid back into a gas.
Vanilla is one of the most popular scents and one of the most expensive. As a result, there are a number of vanilla scents and flavorings that are made with no real vanilla.
- Fakes: Some "vanilla essential oils" are nothing more than synthetic fragrance oils or imitation vanilla. Vanillin, the natural compound that is responsible for the vanilla flavor of vanilla beans, can be easily and inexpensively synthesized in a lab.
- Vanillin Without Vanilla Beans: Vanillin can also be extracted from other "natural" sources, like cloves. Vanillin can even be extracted from the scent glands of beavers. In 2007, Maya Yamamoto won the Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry (a spoof of the Nobel Prizes) for discovering how to extract vanilla flavoring from cow dung.
Vanilla is Expensive
Since growing vanilla beans is so labor-intensive, it is the second most expensive spice after saffron.
The cost of vanilla absolute:
Organic Ethyl Alcohol extracted ($116.00 for 1 ounce)
Organic Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extracted ($180.00 for 1 ounce)
Looking at the prices above, you have to ask yourself, "How can a company make a product with real vanilla and not charge more?"
Caution should be given to any company that claims to offer Vanilla labeled Pure Essential Oil. Companies selling products claiming to contain "vanilla essential oil" are either intentionally misleading their customers or simply do not understand that "vanilla essential oil" does not exist.
Why is there so much confusion? Because there is no regulatory standard governing the use of the term "essential oil," companies have the freedom to label their products incorrectly.
So, if you want to be sure to get what you expect, do some research, deal with companies you know you can trust, ask questions and find out whether the company has any oversight that ensures quality.
Why No Vanilla Soap?
I recently received an email asking why we had so many new vanilla products, but no vanilla soap. We have tried using our vanilla infused oil, but the vanilla scent did not come through. Using organic CO2 extracted vanilla absolute could be an option, but it is very expensive and will not produce a lasting vanilla scent in cold process soap.
Chagrin Valley skin care products made with Organic Vanilla Bean Infusions: