Vanilla is an extremely important flavoring and fragrance material. Vanilla is used to flavor all types of foods, including candy, beverages and ice cream. And in cosmetics, the rich, creamy scent of vanilla is a favorite for many people. It has a smooth, luxurious scent that many people really like.
Vanilla is produced from crystals which form on the fruit of the Vanilla Orchid Vine (Vanilla planifolia). In 1520, Cortes discovered vanilla being used in Mexico as a flavoring. The Europeans tried unsuccessfully to grow vanilla until 1836 when the French learned to pollinate the vanilla plant by hand. Today, in addition to Mexico and parts of America, vanilla is cultivated in Indonesia, the West Indies, Tahiti, the Seychelles, Reunion and Madagascar.
The characteristic fragrance of vanilla is due to a chemical compound named vanillin. Vanilla contains 1.5% to 2.75% vanillin. Vanillin is an important fixative in cosmetics, and the discovery of vanillin has allowed perfumers to produce imitation vanilla fragrances that are much cheaper than true vanilla absolute. Vanillin is produced synthetically from eugenol or wood pulp.
Vanilla is one of the most important perfume ingredients in use today. It is used in 23% of all high quality perfumes on the market. In the most expensive perfumes, vanilla absolute is used. In cheaper perfumes and cosmetics, vanilla fragrance oils are substituted for vanilla.
Most of us have been conditioned to think that food or cosmetics that are labeled "vanilla" should be white. This is because most food products, such as ice cream and cookies, which are vanilla flavored are white. In reality however, vanilla is brown. Vanilla beans are brown, vanilla extract is brown and cosmetics and soaps scented with vanilla fragrance oils turn brown. This feature of vanilla should be taken into account when using vanilla to create bath and body care products.
Vanilla is not the only substance that smells like vanilla. Other substances that have a vanilla-like smell are: heliotrope fragrance (this has a vanilla-almond scent), tolu basalm, peru basalm, benzoin, storax and tonka beans. These substances may also darken your cosmetics and soaps, so it is best to test each one before using it extensively in any recipe.