13 Flavor Engineering II: Vanillin

To many people “vanilla” is an insult. To label something or someone “vanilla” is to associate them with a flavor category so ubiquitous as to seem basic. And yet, a more considered evaluation liberates the compound C8H8O3 from its association with sensory conservatism.

Vanilla was one of the first artificial flavors to be synthesized in 1874. Two German chemists, Ferdinand Tiermann and Wilhelm Haarmann, deduced the chemical structure of the vanilla bean and isolated a near-perfect match in pine bark. It cannot be stated often enough: there is no difference between synthetic vanillin – the name given to the compound when traced outside the bean – and vanilla. It is only the process by which vanillin is made that determines whether it is labelled “natural” or “artificial.” The result is identical. 

Distinctions like these are considered laughable by flavorists, the artist-chemists who design the world’s palette under the patronage of Big Food. Aside from vanilla beans, vanillin can be extracted from wood pulp. Microbes can be taken from the guts of desert locust, cow manure, wine barrels and the gooey secretions in the anuses of North American and European Beavers. Because vanillin is used so widely – in as many as 18,000 beverages, snacks, perfumes, cleaning products, and livestock feeds – demand is immense. The flavor wheel used by food and beverage corporation Fona International measures 29 distinct flavor categories within vanilla: including smoky, spicy, botanical, sulfury, sweet, creamy, medicinal, cooked, fatty, and floral. Fifteen percent of the planet’s supply of vanillin is produced as a byproduct of the paper industry. 85 percent of vanillin is produced according to a two-step process from the petrochemical precursors guaiacol and glyoxylic acid. This synthesis, unlikely as it may sound, is the cleanest way to produce vanillin. And yet the fear of “chemicals” has given rise to a new process of extracting “natural” vanillin from fermented yeast using synthetic organisms: GMO microbes. Once the vanillin has been produced the microbes are destroyed – thus enabling manufacturers to avoid the Scarlet Letter that is “GMO” on their packaging.

The biotech company developing this approach, Evolva, was founded by faculty at MIT. It was part-funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the US Military (DARPA), who pioneered the technology while developing probiotics for soldiers. In fact, fermented yeast represents a possibility space so large that Bayer subsidiary Joyn Bio is researching GMO yeast capable of synthesizing nitrogen directly from the air, eliminating the need for industrial fertilizers. Elsewhere, at Finnish food-tech company Solar Foods, precision fermentation is being used to create protein flour from bacteria, water, electricity, and air.