March 5, 2018

By FEMA Staff

What do you get when you combine the essences of lemon, banana, raspberry and pineapple? Strawberry, of course. Unless you’re a flavorist, that is probably a surprising response.

Over the past few weeks we’ve discussed how the common cold affects flavor, the three categories of tasting ability, and the importance of the FEMA Flavor Ingredient Library. Now it’s time to explore the complexity of flavors.

Not all flavors are complex, right?

Flavors that may appear to be simple, like chocolate or mint, are incredibly complex in their makeup, creation and use. Let’s take a look at vanilla. It is consistently one of the most popular flavors in America. From classic desserts like ice cream to modern drink specialties from Starbucks, consumers rank vanilla at the top of the flavor food-chain. Everyone knows and loves vanilla. But do they really know what makes vanilla so delicious?

Vanilla is derived from the bean of the vanilla orchid and each bean contains hundreds of flavor compounds. Vanillin, an organic compound, is the primary component of the vanilla bean. Some beans even have vanillin crystals on the outside, which can create a very bold flavor. But not all vanilla beans are alike. Flavor compounds can vary depending on the type of bean and the strength of the flavor can vary based on the amount of vanillin.

There are two species of vanilla orchids whose beans can be used to make vanilla flavor in the United States: Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis. Planifolia beans, which originate in Mexico and Madagascar, have a strong, familiar vanilla flavor that people traditionally associate with vanilla. In contrast, taitensis beans, grown in Tahiti and Papua New Guinea, provide a much more subdued flavor with fruity, floral and sweet essences.

Can both types of vanilla beans be used the same way?

Every step of the life cycle and production of these beans impacts the end flavor result. The method used to harvest the plants and cure the beans can make all the difference in the vanilla used by flavorists in creation.

Regardless of the type of bean, the harvest method or the origin of the orchid, vanilla is a well-loved and widely used flavor. Flavorists use the flavor compounds from vanilla beans to enhance existing flavors or develop entirely new flavors. The essence of just one flavor can be used in hundreds of different combinations to create exciting new flavor experiences. The variety that vanilla can provide and the complexity of the flavor contribute to its popularity.

The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States (FEMA) was founded in 1909 and is the national association of the U.S. flavor industry. FEMA’s membership is comprised of flavor manufacturers, flavor users, flavor ingredient suppliers, and others with an interest in the U.S. flavor industry. The association is committed to ensuring a safe supply of flavor ingredients used in foods and beverages enjoyed by billions of men, women, and children around the world.