Vanilla is the most popular flavor in North America. But it is not that often that one gets the chance to taste the “real stuff”. The flavor made from the beans of the vanilla orchid is expensive. This is why 99% of the time what is found in food comes from synthetic vanillin. The compound, which is also present in natural vanilla, can be prepared from wood pulp but today most of it comes from guaiacol a substance extracted from a petroleum derivative. Recently though a Japanese chemist, Mayu Yamamoto prepared the synthetic flavor from cow dung. The process, which won him the Ig Nobel, the humorous alternative to the real prize, involves extracting the pulp from the poop, and converting it to vanillin.
Natural vanilla can cost up to 200 times as much as the synthetic derivative an there is a lot of fake on the market. The easiest way to detect the fraud is using analytical techniques to detect the presence of side products in addition to vanillin. Natural vanilla is a collage of chemicals whereas the synthetic stuff contains only vanillin. The absence of a compound such as 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde would indicate fraud. But as the counterfeiter can simply add the appropriate molecules, another more sophisticated method can be used, carbon-14 dating. Natural vanilla contains a set level of radioactive carbon-14 whose half-life is 5730 years. This means that synthetic vanillin, derived from petroleum that has decayed over millions of years, is not expected to exhibit any radioactivity.
The cost of vanilla flavour from the plant and the desire from consumers for natural ingredients has spurred the industry to search for naturally produced versions of vanillin. Two companies are in the running. A Belgian company Solvay, makes its vanillin by yeast fermentation of ferulic acid, a by-product of rice milling. Evola, also employs yeast fermentation but begins with sugar and makes use of a genetically modified strain of baker’s yeast. The two companies argue that their vanillin, derived from natural ingredients, and natural processes, can therefore be labeled as “natural vanilla flavour.” This even though the vanillin does not come from the plant. Also Evola claims that their process yields some of the chemicals naturally present in the plant giving it a more real taste.