Vanilla planifolia is a species of vanilla orchid. It is native to Mexico, and is one of the primary sources for vanilla flavouring, due to its high vanillin content. Common names are flat-leaved vanilla, Tahitian vanilla, and West Indian vanilla (also used for the Pompona vanilla, V. pompona). Often, it is simply referred to as “the vanilla“. It was first scientifically named in 1808.
Flowers are greenish-yellow, with a diameter of 5 cm (2 in). They last only a day, and must be pollinated manually, during the morning, if fruit is desired. The plants are self-fertile, and pollination simply requires a transfer of the pollen from the anther to the stigma. If pollination does not occur, the flower is dropped the next day. In the wild, there is less than 1% chance that the flowers will be pollinated, so in order to receive a steady flow of fruit, the flowers must be hand-pollinated when grown on farms.
Fruit is produced only on mature plants, which are generally over 3 m (10 ft) long. The fruits are 15-23 cm (6-9 in) long pods (often incorrectly called beans). Outwardly they resemble small bananas. They mature after about five months, at which point they are harvested and cured. Curing ferments and dries the pods while minimizing the loss of essential oils. Vanilla extract is obtained from this portion of the plant.
What is Vanilla Oil?
Vanilla oil is derived from Vanilla planifolia, a native species of the Orchidaceae family, with large climbing vines and clusters of yellow-green flowers that turn into fragrant brown-colored pods.
The word “vanilla” comes from the Spanish word “vainilla,” which means little black pod. Vanilla is indigenous to Central America and Mexico, but has been widely grown in the subtropics of Asia, Northern Europe, and Canada. Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla in the world.
Looking for pure vanilla oil in the market can be very time-consuming and oftentimes confusing. Vanilla oils are usually classified based on the place of origin of the vanilla plant that was used, such as:
- Bourbon vanilla from Madagascar
- Mexican vanilla from Mexico
- Tahitian vanilla from French Polynesia
- West Indian vanilla from the Caribbean and Central and South America
They can also be identified through the type of extraction method used – vanilla CO₂, vanilla absolute, and vanilla oleoresin. I will discuss more about these later on.
Pure vanilla essential oil is made through CO2 distillation. A purist would define an essential oil as either steam distilled or expeller pressed. However, because CO2 distilled vanilla oil is sold as vanilla essential oil, that’s what we’re going to call it. Vanilla is an orchid and grows as a vine that produces long stringy seed pods which are harvested to produce vanilla products including vanilla essential oil. It comes primarily from Madagascar and Indonesia though it originated in Mexico. There are three cultivar sources of vanilla: Vanilla planifolia or V. fragrans (most commonly used), V. tahitensis and V. pompona.
Composition of Vanilla Oil
The main chemical components of vanilla oil are vanillin and traces of other constituents such as eugenol, piperonal, and caproic acid.6 Vanillin and piperonal are responsible for vanilla’s delicious taste and many of its beneficial health effects.
Vanilla oil contains approximately 150 aromas, many of which are present in very small amounts. Vanillyl ethyl ether, acetic acid, p-hydroxybenzaldehyde, and caproic acid are among the chemicals present in it.
There are several different kinds of essential oil distillation methods including (but not limited to) steam distillation, cold pressing and expeller pressing. The distillation method used depends on the type of plant material. For example, cold pressed distillation is commonly used for peels and rinds to produce Grapefruit Essential Oil and Lemon Essential Oil. Steam distillation is perhaps the most common form of extracting and creating essential oils. This is because steam distillation generally yields the largest amount of oil for most plants and maintains the integrity of the desired compounds.
The aromatic compounds of the vanilla bean cannot be obtained by distillation. The only way to release the aromatic compounds of the vanilla bean and other delicate plants is to introduce a solvent. Aromatic, concentrated oils from plants derived by introduction of a solvent are referred to as an “absolute.” Common absolutes made from delicate plant matter include jasmine and rose absolute.
Absolutes are similar to essential oils. Both essential oils and absolutes are oils produced by plant matter. To produce an absolute, the plant material is placed into a drum and introduced to a solvent along with gentle heat. The solvent is then removed, which leaves behind a resin known as a concrète or resinoid. This resin is then treated with alcohol to separate the aromatic compounds. An absolute is the most concentrated form of plant material, and may be thicker in consistency than an essential oil produced by distillation. Typically, absolutes are extremely pricey and often don’t make economical sense for soap products.
If you search for “Vanilla Essential Oil,” you will indeed find products labeled as such. Most commonly, this product is simply vanilla extract that has been diluted with a carrier oil, such as jojoba oil. These products may also be synthetic fragrance oils or an oil infusion. Vanilla extract found in the grocery store is very different than a vanilla essential oil or absolute. What makes them different is how they are produced.
Uses of Vanilla Oil
In Mexico during the time of the Aztecs, vanilla was added to foods to enhance their flavoring. 2 They were also known to add vanilla to a drink they called cacahuatl, which includes cacao beans, corn, honey and chili peppers, a special concoction only fit for their gods and kings.
Through the years, vanilla has been extensively used in:
- Cooking – as a flavoring ingredient in ice cream, milk, candies, desserts, and in almost every food product imaginable
- Pharmaceutical and chemical industries – to manufacture drugs for the treatment of Parkinson’s (L-dopa), hypertension (methyldopa), and heart problems (papaverine)
- Perfumery – Francois Coty, who is known to be one the greatest perfumers of modern times, used vanilla in L’Aimant in 1927. Afterwards, vanilla became a staple scent in 23 percent of all quality fragrances.
Vanilla oil has been particularly found to be useful in improving one’s emotional and physiological health and well-being, especially when used in aromatherapy.
Health Benefits of Vanilla Essential Oil
This property of vanilla essential oil alone can take care of most of your problems. You may not be aware of this important fact, but oxidation is one of the biggest causes behind most of our health troubles and diseases. It is directly and indirectly responsible for a number of diseases caused by organic malfunctions and infections. Oxidizers, also called free radicals, cause oxidation of living cells and tissues and burn them to death, or change their DNA structure to that of cancerous cells. Gradually, this result in a weakening of the body’s immune system, loss of memory, organic and nervous malfunctioning, gradual loss of vision & hearing, mental instability, macular degeneration, and the body becomes prone to diseases.
The antioxidant property of vanilla essential oil neutralizes these free radicals and protects the body from wear and tear, infections and even some forms of cancer, such as those of the prostrate and colon. It also repairs the damage already done to the body and stimulates repair.
A systematic administration of vanilla essential oil to patients suffering from impotence, erectile dysfunction, frigidity, or loss of libido can relieve them of their problems. This oil stimulates the secretion of certain hormones like testosterone and estrogen which help bring about normal sexual behavior and promotes sexual arousal.
To some extent, the anticarcinogenic property of vanilla oil comes from its antioxidant properties. The free radicals or oxidants do not only damage tissues, but can also cause certain type of cancers, such as those of the prostrate and colon. Certain components of the essential oil of vanilla curbs the growth of cancerous cells, thereby helping to cure, prevent, or slow down cancer.
Vanilla essential oil can effectively reduce fevers by fighting infections. The essential oil contains components like Eugenol and Vanillin Hydroxybenzaldehyde, which fight infections. Being a sedative, it also reduces inflammation from fevers, so it is also considered an antiphlogistic.
You were sitting alone, depressed. Then, someone brought you a vanilla ice cream cone or a vanilla-flavored drink. You drink it and suddenly, your spirits are lifted and the depression is gone! You start feeling pleased, satisfied and get into a much better mood. This is one of the biggest advantages of vanilla’s powerful aroma. It is far more effective if it comes from real vanilla, but synthetic vanilla or artificially synthesized Vanillin Hydroxybenzaldehyde works as well. The flavor alone is so pleasingly sweet and soothing that everyone from toddlers to centurions enjoy the flavor. Vanillin Hydroxybenzaldehyde, a component of vanilla essential oil, is an effective antidepressant and mood lifter.
The essential oil of vanilla soothes the body in innumerable ways. It soothes all types of inflammation and hyperactivity in the systems of the body, including the respiratory, circulatory, digestive, nervous and excretory systems. It reduces inflammation stemming from fever, as well as convulsions, anxiety, stress, and hypersensitivity to allergens.
This oil has a relaxing and calming effect on the brain and the nerves that provides relief from anxiety, anger, and restlessness.
Vanilla Essential Oil helps you to get good night’s sleep as well. This is due to the sedative and relaxing properties of this oil. It lowers blood pressure and has a tranquilizing effect on the brain that makes it hard to keep your eyelids open. A small amount of vanilla essential oil or extract and the only thing you care about is pillows and dreams!
Other Benefits: It helps to regularize menstruation (although not exactly an emenagogue) by activating certain hormones like estrogen.
How to Make Vanilla Oil
It’s important to establish that finding 100 percent pure vanilla oil today is highly unlikely, as it is extremely expensive. Most of the cheap vanilla oils available commercially are either heavily processed or contain loads of synthetic materials, and are unfortunately passed off as the real deal by unscrupulous manufacturers. Unlike other essential oils, vanilla oil cannot be obtained through steam distillation because of its very delicate structure.
There are 3 types of vanilla oil extracts:
- Vanilla carbon dioxide(CO₂) – The vanilla pods are put inside a stainless steel chamber that has been injected with CO₂ The air inside the chamber is then pressurized. Under these conditions, CO₂ liquefies and becomes a supercritical fluid that pulls the oil from the pods. In the end, the CO₂ turns back into gas again, leaving the vanilla essential oil.
- Vanilla absolute– Preferred in perfumery products, absolute vanilla is obtained by selective solvent extraction, using initially non-polar solvent such as benzene, followed by a polar solvent such as ethanol.
- Vanilla oleoresin – This is a semi-solid concentrate produced by solvent extraction from macerated beans. Vanilla oleoresin is actually just a commercial term, as the liquid extract is not really an oleoresin but a resinoid obtained from the vanilla pods.
Each type is claimed to be better and purer than the other. But remember, the more processed it is, the less pure and the lower-quality your vanilla oil will be. More often than not, the natural aroma and essence of vanilla oil is lost during these processes. To avoid the risk of being duped into purchasing chemical-laced vanilla oil, I recommend making your own vanilla tincture and infusion at home. Try using these recipes:
DIY Vanilla Tincture
Simply soak whole vanilla pods in a jar of 151-proof rum. After 2 weeks, transfer the mixture in a separate container. Sift the solid particles away using a strainer, and you’ve gota high quality vanilla tincture.
DIY Vanilla Oil Infusion
Here are 2 ways to do vanilla oil infusion:
- Mix 1 teaspoon of your homemade vanilla tincture with 8 ounces of an essential oil of your choice, or
- Get whole vanilla pods or beans. Chop them into pieces and remove their seeds. Add them directly to your carrier oil. Although it’s ready to use after a week, letting it sit longer will make your vanilla oil infusion stronger and more effective. It’s okay not to filter out the vanilla pods from the oil if you want, but make sure that it’s completely immersed and it’s kept in an airtight container to prevent oxidation.
For carrier oils, I recommend jojoba, almond, and apricot essential oil, for they don’t have a strong odor that may overpower vanilla oil’s sweet-smell. I also advise using only organic vanilla pods to get optimum benefits.
Oil Specific: Not for internal use.
General: As with all essential oils, never use them undiluted, in eyes or mucus membranes. Do not take internally unless working with a qualified and expert practitioner. Keep away from children. If applying an essential oil to your skin always perform a small patch test to an insensitive part of the body (after you have properly diluted the oil in an appropriate carrier.