Vanilla Beans – A Soothing Ancient Spice of Mesoamerica
Vanilla pods are a very fragrant fruit that grows on the vines of a tall tree climbing orchid. Vanilla originated in the tropical forest of the Mesoamerican region and was cultivated and highly prized by various tribes. Vanilla was regularly used as an offering to the gods, and as tribute to dominating civilizations like the Aztecs, who had conquered smaller tribal lands. The Mayan’s used vanilla to flavor their cacao drink which was reserved for the social elite.
The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortez was the first European to introduce vanilla and to Europe in the 1520’s, which made an positive impression, unfortunately efforts to cultivate vanilla proved futile. Vanilla has unique growing characteristics, which make it a difficult to separate from its natural environment. Its natural pollinator is the Melipona bee, which is a native stingless bee of Central America. The vanilla plant has long horn shaped flowers which only open for one day, this is when the bees go to work. In 1837 a Belgian botanist discovered how to artificially pollinate the flowers, but it was not commercially viable. However, in 1841 a 12 year old boy who was a slave on the French island of Reunion discovered how to hand pollinate the flowers. This method has allowed vanilla to be grown worldwide. Today there are three species of Vanilla grown globally, and most vanilla is grown in Madagascar.
The labor intensive cultivation of vanilla make it the second most expensive spice after saffron. Despite the expense, vanilla is highly sought after and a popular addition in various foods, drinks, perfumes, baked goods, aromatherapy and much much more. To reduce costs however, 95% of products labeled as “vanilla” are artificially flavored with vanilin, which can be produced synthetically from lignin, instead of real vanilla fruits. Another product, Castoreum, which is the exudate of castor sacs from mature beavers, has been approved as “natural flavoring” in the USA and is often used as vanilla and raspberry flavoring.
Antioxidant – Studies have shown that vanilin has strong antioxidant and antibacterial properties, which may be effective in cancer and tumor fighting abilities.
Aids digestion – Digestive problems may be relieved by taking vanilla infused with herbal tea. Traditionally, drinking water boiled with vanilla beans has been a natural cure for nausea, vomiting and upset stomachs.
Increased libido – Since ancient times, vanilla has also been used as an aphrodisiac and the pleasant aroma of vanilla has been connected by experts to feelings of pleasure and satiation. Although there are no concrete studies that show this, many people have claimed that it has helped their sexual drive.
Skin care – The antibacterial properties of vanilla make an effective treatment for skin conditions such as acne and and inflammation, and may help slow the signs of aging. Cosmetic companies use vanilla for its pleasant aroma and for its effect on the skin.
Stress relief – Vanilla in its concentrated form as an extract or oil is known for having soothing and calming effects. Neurological studies have shown vanilla scent to be an effective treatment for depression, anxiety and other stress related disorders.