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Vanilla - 7 Secrets of a Spice

Updated on July 29, 2011

Vanilla tidbits

Vanilla like chocolate has a long and interesting history. It is the second most expensive spice in the world, second only to saffron, because the process of growing, harvesting and fermenting the vanilla seed pod is labor intensive.

The honor of introducing the European world to vanilla as well as chocolate goes to Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador of the 1500's.

Cortes discovered vanilla as a flavoring when he arrived amongst the Aztecs of Mexico. A native flavoring spice found in Mexico, it is harvested from the climbing orchid vine, scientifically known as Vanilla planiflora. This perennial tropical orchid is called "vainilla - little pod", in Spanish. The vine grows throughout the tropics, usually up existing trees, with Madagascar as the world's largest producers.

Widely used in commercial and domestic baking for it's delicate floral flavoring with a pure spicy hint, the vanilla extract is one of the most popular of all scents. Vanilla is also used in perfumes, scents, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and aromatherapy.

Vanilla extracts are categorized according to the regions in which it is grown or found.

  • Bourbon vanilla is grown in the Indian Ocean
  • Mexican vanilla is grown in Mexico
  • Tahitian vanilla is grown in French Polynesia

Vanilla bean pods or fruit are long, thin and of a deep rich brown color. It is the small black seeds in the pod that contain the medicinal properties. The active compound of vanilla is known as vanillin which is the secret health benefit of the spice.

Vanilla flavoring

Vanilla is well known as a flavoring. It is the number one flavoring used in desserts, whether cooked or baked. Only a few drops of vanilla extract is needed to enhance the taste of the food in which it is used.

From the simplest to the most complicated of desserts and beverages use vanilla as a principal flavoring.

Real Vanilla extract flavoring contains the compound vanillin and is made in two ways.

1. Ethyl Alcohol, FDA says 35% minimum and water solution

2. Natural vanilla extract has little to no alcohol - 2% to 3% is normally used

Vanilla can be either brown or clear, the clear vanilla is artificial and generally used by bakeries in wedding cakes or specialty cakes, that the baker does not want to change the color of the batter or the icing. Regular naturally brown vanilla is typically used in everything else.

Vanilla bean pods and flower
Vanilla bean pods and flower | Source
Natural Mexican vanilla extract
Natural Mexican vanilla extract | Source
Natural pure vanilla extract
Natural pure vanilla extract | Source
Artificial clear vanilla
Artificial clear vanilla | Source

7 Secrets

The following are the seven secrets of Vanilla, actually vanillin.

1. Anti depressant - vanillin assists in beating depression, using it as an essential oil to rub into your body or place in your bath water. The aroma of vanilla is known to calm your nerves and lift the mood.

2. Sedative - vanillin promotes good sleep, by placing the scent in your pillow, sheets or in the bath 30 minutes before turning in helps with relaxation and falling asleep. It is also extremely useful against inflammation, anxiety, anger and restlessness.

3. Tranquilizer - vanillin calms the nerves, soothing hyperactivity which promotes relaxation of the nervous system and blood pressure.

4. Anti Carcinogenic - laboratory studies have shown that vanillin checks the growth of cancerous cells and prevents the mutation of cells that lead to cancer, defending the body against infections.

5. Anti Oxidant - vanillin checks free radicals through neutralization, offsetting oxidative damage to brain cells and the body.

6. Aphrodisiac - a German study in the 1700's noted that vanillin or vanilla extract help impotent men with their problem. It is recommended to massage the vanilla extract oil into the body.

7. Febrifuge - vanillian has been linked to reducing fevers fighting infections and inflammation.

As always you should consult qualified healthcare professionals with the expertise of research and practice before embarking on any alternative medicinal help.

During the 1700's vanilla was used to help with stomach ulcers and sleep difficulties. So vanilla does have a legacy of medicinal use for more than a few decades.

Simple Vanilla Flan

Flan is a traditional Mexican dessert and there are many versions. This Flan recipe is prized for it's simplicity. If you've never made flan before, now is the time to try this recipe.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes


  • 1 cup and 1/2 cup sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 14oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 13 oz cans evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla


Preheat oven to 325 degrees. You will need 6 ramekins or other specialty flan cook ware and a large baking pan to put them in.

Pour 1 cup sugar in warm pan over medium heat. Constantly stir sugar until is browns and becomes caramel. Quickly pour approximately 2-3 tablespoons of caramel in each ramekin, tilting it to swirl the caramel around the sides. Reheat caramel if it starts to harden.

In a mixer or with a whisk, blend the eggs together. Mix in the milks then slowly mix in the 1/2 cup of sugar, then the vanilla. Blend smooth after each ingredient is added.

Pour custard into caramel lined ramekins. Place ramekins in a large glass or ceramic baking dish and fill with about 1-2 inches of hot water. Bake for 45 minutes in the water bath and check with a knife just to the side of the center. If knife comes out clean, it's ready.

Remove and let cool. Let each ramekin cool in refrigerator for 1 hour. Invert each ramekin onto a small plate, the caramel sauce will flow over the custard.

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    • Celiegirl profile image

      Celiegirl 5 years ago

      Hey charmur, thanks for the comment, take care.

    • profile image

      charmur 5 years ago

      Hello Celiegirl, 7 months late am I? Vanilla is an age old Secret! You have touched on this some... It stimulates my mind and my body in such a mysterious and sexually stimulating way. You should be closer to me. As it is an Experience that should be shared with you personally! sincerely, charmur

    • Celiegirl profile image

      Celiegirl 6 years ago

      Thanks Don Bobbitt and TheListLady - I love vanilla, it is so versatile, glad you enjoyed it!

    • TheListLady profile image

      TheListLady 6 years ago from New York City

      Oh so lovely. There is nothing like the aroma, the taste, and wow the healthy benefits you've listed.

      Thanks a million for a hub that is actually stimulating my senses right now.

      Rated up! Yay!

    • Don Bobbitt profile image

      Don Bobbitt 6 years ago from Ruskin Florida

      Excellent Hub. Obviously well researched. I enjoyed it and voted it UP and Interesting.