Vanilla Bean Dilemma

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Savory Spice Shop

Vanilla beans as we know them are under attack. Not by Mother Nature, per se, although she has played her part with Cyclone Enawo. Earlier this year, the devastating cyclone tore up parts of Madagascar that are key to growing vanilla beans. Typically, when a spice’s price rises to extraordinary levels, Mother Nature has been behind it. Sometimes the price’s impact is immediate and other times we don’t feel it for years here in America.

When we opened our first shop back in 2004, the price of vanilla had reached crisis levels due to the effects Cyclone Hudah in 2000. The impact wasn’t immediate, but because of legitimate shortages, vanilla bean prices rose by 2002 and reached all-time highs by 2004.

Later in 2004, Hurricane Ivan destroyed Grenada and its nutmeg trees. So much so that during a visit to the island in 2016, Janet and I learned that the nutmeg business has never really recovered and that cacao production has become the primary spice that they’re cultivating and exporting. However, the price of nutmeg remained stable for many years after the hurricane mostly because of the sheer amount of reserves. Eventually we felt the exorbitant increases, which lasted for a few years. That’s Mother Nature’s way, but eventually life and prices get back to normal. This attack is different. This attack is coming from one our worst traits as humans: greed. More specifically, corporate greed.

Quick Curing

Quick-curing isn’t necessarily a new practice but in the past, very few could afford setting up a facility to do it. However, several years ago a major German flavor-house set up a plant in Madagascar and became quite good at it. Sensing a competitive disadvantage, other flavor-houses, namely three of the largest global players, encouraged and funded their suppliers in Madagascar to set up quick-curing facilities to accelerate the harvesting and curing process of vanilla beans.

women preparing vanilla beans

The traditional methods for curing vanilla, which have been used for generations, create tens of thousands of jobs for members of these communities. The sorting, drying, manipulation and grading of vanilla, a process that can take up to six months for the best qualities of vanilla, has become an afterthought with quick-curing and “green” vanilla extraction.

On paper, quick-curing sounds like progress. Traditional methods for curing vanilla beans can take up to six months, while quick-curing can be done in weeks. Aside from the fact that this new method eliminates tens of thousands of jobs in a historically poor third-world country, it has created a vanilla pricing crisis that likely isn’t going to end soon.

These flavor-houses are bidding and outbidding each other for “green” beans so they can buy up as much inventory as they can for themselves. By doing this, they are creating an environment where the value of “green” beans is so high that theft has become a problem for the growers. In the past, the value of a vanilla bean increased only after it had been cured. Now the value is in the “green” bean. But because of the risk of theft, growers are picking them earlier causing a degradation of beans in general.

The quick-curing method takes eight pounds of “green” beans to produce one pound of low-quality cured vanilla beans. Using the traditional method, it only takes five pounds to create one pound of high-quality beans. Ultimately as people lose their jobs, theft of “green” beans is becoming the only way to put food on the table. Growers are picking beans early to prevent theft, meaning the quality of beans is far worse, and yields go down. It’s a vicious human cyclone that isn’t likely to change soon. But, somehow, in all of this, the big flavor-houses win. The rest of us, particularly those who have lost their way of making a living, lose.

That’s the story in Madagascar, and it’s not much better in other countries that cultivate vanilla beans.

There’s one other huge problem with quick-curing. The process pretty much eliminates the various grades of vanilla beans. By picking beans earlier and earlier, most, if not all, are prevented from developing nuances of flavor. What we are left with is one uniform and low-quality vanilla flavor profile. Imagine if the same decision was made with grapes for wine…there would be a major outcry, and there should be one for vanilla beans too.

Another Option: Natural Vanilla Extract

So what will have to happen for a change to come about? It’s the opinion of many experts that the market for vanilla needs to collapse. One way to fight back, which is a little counterintuitive in our world of farm-to-table and organic, is to buy Natural Vanilla Extractnot pure vanilla, so the collapse will eventually happen.

This is a choice we are making here at Savory. While it is our intention to always offer high-quality, pure vanilla extracts and a selection of vanilla beans when they are available, with prices being as much as 10-20 times what they were at the beginning of 2016, the reality is that lack of other options likely takes vanilla off the table for many of our customers.

While I’m not happy that all of us are in this boat, I am pleased that we can offer you an alternative vanilla extract option for this upcoming baking season. Natural Vanilla Extract is made from all natural ingredients. Natural extracts are not new to our line. Some of the flavor profiles we offer are natural versus pure.

Double vanilla cupcakes
Double Vanilla Cupcakes

What's the Difference Between a Pure Extract and a Natural One?

A pure extract’s flavor is derived from the named source of the flavor. Vanilla from vanilla beans or lemon from lemons. Our natural extracts are made from plant-based ingredients, but sometimes that flavor is derived from other parts of the named source such as leaves or stems of a vanilla orchid instead of the bean. In other cases, a natural flavor could come from an entirely different plant, but it is always a natural source and never artificial.

The formulas for all natural extracts are highly proprietary, so I do not have an exact ingredient list to share with you. However, in conversations with our vanilla supplier, the Natural Vanilla Extract that we are offering could best be described as a partial-pure, hinting at the fact that its flavor is mostly extracted from the vanilla plant, but also includes other plant-based ingredients.

For those of you who want flavor facts and not hints, stick with one of our pure vanilla extracts. For those of you who can’t justify or are unable to pay the exorbitantly high and rising prices, or just want to stick it to the flavor-house man, this is a great option. We think the flavor doesn’t miss a beat. So much so, that we have reformulated our line of vanilla sugars using our Natural Vanilla Extract as the primary flavor provider of those sugars.  

Group shot of vanilla products. Extracts and sugars.

We did that for two reasons. One, because we didn’t think it would be prudent of us to use up a good portion of our limited supply of pure vanilla to make them. And two, because the price of our line of sugars would have made them far too expensive to sell.

That’s the unfortunate story of vanilla, but stay tuned as we’ll do our best to keep you informed. Hopefully there will be some better news down the road.

You can purchase Natural Vanilla Extract online or in any of our locations.


Comments on this Article


(guest), on October 30, 2017

Hi. I am not clear as to if there is a noticeable difference in flavor outcome when using the natural versus pure vanilla. Can you please address this? Will chocolate chip cookies and other baked goods taste the same or will it be obvious that another type of flavoring was used? Thanks for this article.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you for this clarifying and helpful information!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you for the information on vanilla. I'll try the natural vanilla

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thanks for the information- I have wondered about rising prices for vanilla and had no idea of the cause. This will help me appreciate the people behind the true product and your efforts to help them and us as consumers.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thanks for the information. Will the natural vanilla extract change the flavor of baked goods?

(guest), on October 30, 2017

I knew that mother nature had changed the Vanilla Bean landscape, but knowing what the greed is doing to the industry & culture (not to mention likely changing the beans themselves long term) is awful! Vanilla Bean is my favorite flavor but if its muted and diminished to being short of its glory, then I'll gladly take the extract! Thank you for sharing and for always providing the best spices!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Mike, thank you for taking the time to explain what is going on to cause the rising prices of vanilla and help me make a more informed choice for purchasing it!

MollyMartin (registered user) on October 30, 2017

Thanks for the question about the flavor of Natural Vanilla Extract. The flavor remains a true vanilla flavor and you should not notice any difference in the end result when using this product versus Pure Vanilla Extract.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

I just wanted to say that the Savory Spice shop is amazing. Your product is second to none! The first time I walked into the store in Boulder Colorado I was mesmerized. I spent hours in there and spent quite a bit of money. I then went home and cooked dinner and realized how much better everything tasted with your spices. I then turned around and tossed out all of my store bought spices, My husband and son built me a 6' x 5' custom spice rack and it is full of nothing but your spices. Thank you so much for being here. You have made me not want to leave my kitchen. On line ordering is also amazing. I recently had a house fire and have to replace all of my spices and on line ordering made it a breeze since I had so many to replace. Thank you so much!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you for the information, for offering the alternative, for taking the time to research this issue. And what I appreciate just as much, if not more, is your informed stand on the ever-increasing glut of corporate greed. Thank you.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Greed can only be stopped if we make a conscious choice. I had no idea this was happening before reading your article. I don't buy out of season. I buy locally and organic. I pick my own berries in the summer with my grandson and freeze them. If we run out we wait till the next season. We are all responsible for our food choices and the effect that has on our economy. Thank you for your honesty.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

I love the approach you are taking and admire you for doing so. I'll be seeing Craig in the Huntersville store tomorrow or Wednesday and will be eager to purchase the new product. Thank you so much for sharing the story.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Ok, but how does this affect vanilla bean powder? I use it in my cocoa mix.

MollyMartin (registered user) on October 30, 2017

We appreciate all this positive feedback! To the customer who mentioned your custom spice rack: we'd love to see a photo of it! You can email us at savory@savoryspiceshop.com

(guest), on October 30, 2017

A fascinating account, thank you for so much information.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

We use many essential oils in the Integrative Health field and a similar thing happened with chamomile. (A true staple in the aromatherapy blends ). First nature gave a hit and as prices started to rise corporate greed entered to make it unattainable in its best form. What is offered now is poorer quality and truly not getting the same results. Many of us have chosen to use other essential oils and as demand goes down the price is too, slowly.

MollyMartin (registered user) on October 30, 2017

Great question re: Vanilla Bean Powder. The Vanilla Bean Powder is not changing as there is no natural alternative available.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you for the great information. And thank you for having true business integrity.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thanks for clearing this up. My reaction to the rising prices has been to just leave the vanilla out of many of my recipes that use other strong flavors, such as chocolate, but I still miss the vanilla.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Is this the same for the Mexican variety?

(guest), on October 30, 2017

We spend a good time down in Mazatlan Mexico where there is a fantastic distillery using true Mexico vanilla beans to distill their wonderful, true Vanilla. Have you considered finding other vendors who might provide the vanilla needed for your stores? It is fantastic, I buy for my own use and others, it is terrific, and it is NOT the fake ones that can be bought in Mexico to the unknown.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Great article! Not only did it explain what Natural Vanilla Extract is, you also showed your care & concern for your customers while still giving them a choice. Bravo!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you for the information. It is nice to know the "why' and what our options are for substitutes. I for one am not paying $20 for a bottle of vanilla.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

I'm all about natural, so the natural extract is a great solution. For me I think I might treat this like olive oil. I have my high end cold pressed oils I reserve solely to stand on their own, like dipping in fresh bread. Then I have my every day good quality I use where it doesn't stand on its own.. think salad dressings.
I see myself having natural and pure varieties, with mainly relying on the natural one due to price.
I really appreciate articles like these, keeping us in the know. It's so unfortunate greed has taken over here ruining quality.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Does this problem with quick-curing only apply to Madagascar beans? What about Mexican and Tahitian vanillas?

(guest), on October 30, 2017

I was aware of the storm problem but not about the freed. Thanks for the article!
For those people asking about Mexican vanilla, there simply isn’t enough Mexican vanilla beans in the world to make up for the loss Madagascar. And I have noticed that corporate food companies have bought a lot of the Mexican supply.
Tragic, as we home cooks enter baking season.
Thanks for providing a delicious option!

MollyMartin (registered user) on October 30, 2017

Regarding the questions on Mexican and Tahitian vanilla: we cannot say for sure that the quick curing method is being used to produce those extracts, but we have seen the price for extracts produced using beans from those countries rising at a similar rate.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thanks for the update. You make us feel more like friends than customers!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you so much for this information. I use ground vanilla bean in my candies. Would the extract be a 1:1 replacement? For example, I already use 1t extract, + 1t beans.... would it now be 2t extract?

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank you for explaining the vanilla crisis in more depth than I had heard anywhere. I had purchased a bottle of pure vanilla extract from one of the major spice companies in the US, and it tasted like brown water. Their imitation vanilla also tasted like brown water. (Flavor note: brown has no flavor!) I have even made extract from bean purchased before this mess happened. I'm willing to try natural vanilla if it tastes good: I use it to flavor yogurt, so must taste right.

MollyMartin (registered user) on October 30, 2017

When using extract in place of vanilla beans, an average size vanilla bean is equal to approximately 3 tsp of extract. Hope this helps!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Having a child with multiple anaphylactic food allergies, is it possible to find out if the extract contains peanuts, tree nuts, sesame or shellfish and/or is made is a facility that processes the above? When recipes are proprietary and "natural flavors" is used in the ingredient list, the danger can be too great to enjoy the food if a person with information is no available to answer the question. Thank you

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Thank You very much for sharing this candid information. Only through education from those in the "loop" can help those of us who live in a completely different world. I do love your spices - my cooking has become sooo much better since I switched to all of your various spices! Thank You!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

How does Vanilla Bean Paste figure in to this ? Is it made in Madagascar?. I bought a bottle for the first time, but I dont know if I use it the same, or have to adjust recipes ( for me its hard to get too much vanilla) I love it.

(guest), on October 30, 2017

Piggybacking onto the allergen question above, mine includes a concern about gluten...is the Natural,tested for gluten, and produced in gluten free facilities, as well? Thank you!

(guest), on October 30, 2017

I will likely use less, but would also love to pay the higher price for what I buy to support those sticking to traditional, better, smarter, job-producing curing and production. Will you look for those doing this and make it a clear purchase option as well?
Thank you for all the very detailed info!
Blair

(guest), on October 31, 2017

Thanks for the very informative article on vanilla. I have been using my supply sparingly. Next trip to the store, I will pick up the natural vanilla. Hopefully there will be a time in the near future that things settle down and get back to normal.

MollyMartin (registered user) on October 31, 2017

Regarding allergens, the Natural Vanilla Extract is gluten-free and does not contain peanuts, tree nuts, or shellfish. The allergen information we have from the supplier does not specifically address sesame.

(guest), on October 31, 2017

Thanks for the great information just in time for my holiday baking. I posted this article on Facebook to alert my friends and family. This is one of the many reasons I love your shop!

(guest), on October 31, 2017

I really prefer the Tahitian Vanilla bean and have tried to purchase beans online, price went from $28 for 1/4 lb to over $100 so I am very sad. Yes I will pay for real extract I won't cook with out it.

(guest), on October 31, 2017

Thanks for the informative article. Here's another reason why every jar in my cupboard says "Savory Spice".

(guest), on October 31, 2017

Savory Spice Shop in Sellwood, Oregon, has been one of my favorite destinations since I first wandered in. I've purchased gifts there, and it's my go-to place for my favorite spices. (Your North Carolina High Country BBQ rub made everything else for grilled chicken go away.) I've recommended that particular rub, and the store in general, to dozens of people. Having received this post, I appreciate the store, and your business mission and model, even more. Thank you for being open, honest, and transparent. I trust the vanilla decisions you make will be the best ones. Laura LauraHandke.com

MollyMartin (registered user) on November 01, 2017

Re: Vanilla Bean Paste. Yes, that product is made using beans from Madagascar and no changes have been made to the paste. You can use one tablespoon of paste to replace one tablespoon of single strength vanilla extract. One tablespoon of paste can also be used as a substitute for one vanilla bean, making it a great time-saver when doing lots of baking!

MollyMartin (registered user) on November 01, 2017

As for those looking to support those sticking to traditional, better, smarter, job-producing curing and production, our Pure Vanilla Extracts are a great option and are made the traditional way.

(guest), on November 01, 2017

Is propylene glycol plant based??

MollyMartin (registered user) on November 01, 2017

All of the flavoring ingredients in Natural Vanilla Extract are plant-based. Natural extracts are made with propylene glycol to stabilize the flavor. We have tried to have extracts produced in the past without propylene glycol and while they can be made, their shelf life is so short that often the product expires before it ever leaves our stores. With all this in mind, we offer products that our customers request and do our very best to keep them informed.

(guest), on November 03, 2017

Thank you for explaining the vanilla situation - I knew something was going on but didn't understand. and I appreciate your being forthcoming with what you are doing about it. I was at your shop today and bought 2 bottles of the natural vanilla extract. I regret what is going on and want to support your efforts.

(guest), on November 03, 2017

Thank you for this informative and helpful article. I am glad to be more informed on this issue. It is very sad news especially for the workers at the bottom of the industry. I will probably vote with my dollar and my conscience and use natural flavor vanilla products. Your stance on this topic and commitment to raise awareness increases my customer loyalty to your company.

(guest), on November 08, 2017

There's nothing like being informed on a subject one cares about. And anything that's edible is an important subject. It's sad that greed has entered into this edible subject.

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