In my life, I have watched vanilla prices soar and fall within a moment's notice. This rollercoaster-like pattern has only been exaggerated in recent years. But how expensive is vanilla, really? And is it worth it?
Let's break it down. My grandmother's chocolate chip recipe (aka the best one ever) calls for one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Currently, manufacturers price vanilla at around 62 cents per teaspoon.
If you do the math, you'll discover vanilla costs around $300 per pound of extract. To give you some context, sterling silver is currently worth around $347 per pound.
So, why is vanilla so expensive? How is this flower worth almost as much as sterling silver?
Vanilla beans come from orchids. Crazy, right? This flowering plant is incredibly labor-intensive and difficult to grow. Unlike other crops, vanilla beans come from one specific plant. For example, there are hundreds of varieties of tomatoes and corn, but only one of vanilla.
So, if there's a blight or pest storm that wipes out the crop, there's nothing else to fall back on. The entire harvest for that year is ruined.
However, like most things in life, it's more complicated than that. In this article, we will break down six reasons why vanilla is so incredibly expensive and whether or not it's worth the price.
For a more in-depth review of vanilla itself, check out our article about vanilla flavoring and vanilla extract.
6 Reasons Why Vanilla is So Expensive
Reason #1: Hard to Grow
Most vanilla beans come from a very specific orchid, V. planifolia. This plant requires distinct and peculiar conditions to grow. Even if the farm meets those complicated conditions, the plant still takes two to four years to mature and produce beans. Also, the flowers only bloom for one day of the year, making the harvest season short and chaotic.
A lot of the world's vanilla bean orchids are grown outside of their native habitats in Mexico and Belize. In fact, 80% of vanilla is now grown in Madagascar due to deforestation and loss of habitat in Central America.
As all my fellow growers know, no pollination means no harvest. Without native bugs or birds capable of pollinating the flower, the orchid won't produce any beans.
To simplify, each plant has to be pollinated by hand. I'm getting tired just thinking about all this.
Reason #2: Curing Process
Assuming all has gone smoothly with the growing and harvesting process, it's now time for the pods to cure.
Vanilla pods have to cure for several months post-harvest to achieve the unique flavor we all know and love.
Once harvested, workers flash-freeze the pods to halt the growing process. Then, the pods are set out to sweat for about a week. They need to lose all excess moisture for the vanilla flavor to develop properly.
If that weren't enough, they then have to dry for several weeks in the sun. This step is key in bringing out their alluring aroma.
Last but not least, the pods are cured for around six months. That's a lot of labor and time, hence the price tag.
Reason #3: Manufacturing
The beans are finally ready. Six months later, it's time to sell the beans to manufacturers that make the extract itself.
Cured beans need to soak in a high concentration of alcohol for at least six months. If they're soaked longer, the flavor is even stronger. Some of the best vanilla extract out there has been soaking for a long, long time.
For those six+ months, no one's making any money, so the price goes up again.
Reason #3: Climate Change
Farmers across the world experience the effects of extreme weather events up-close and personal. These events, such as cyclones, storms, or even gradual temperature changes, can devastate entire farms. The vanilla industry is especially susceptible to these harmful events, thanks to the labor-intensive and time-consuming nature of the plant.
A cyclone could wipe out an entire crop in one fell swoop. If that were to occur, it would take between two-four years until that farm would be able to harvest and profit again.
Due to the exponential uptick in storms and extreme weather, there have been worldwide vanilla shortages. And, as we all know, high demand leads to a high price.
Reason #4: High Demand
As mentioned above, there is currently a high demand for natural vanilla flavoring. But it's not only because of the shortages.
The 21st Century birthed a societal shift from quick and easy meals to natural foods and flavors. The growing cries for organic, locally-grown food have led to an ever-increasing demand for natural vanilla. No GMOs or pesticides, am I right?
Frankly, it also tastes better. If I have the choice (and the cash), I will always pick natural vanilla over artificial.
Reason #5: Shipping
Shipping prices! Flying vanilla all the way from Madagascar to the U.S. is not an easy feat, especially since vanilla is a volatile liquid. It has to travel almost 10,000 miles to get from Madagascar to the center of the United States.
During that journey, the plane must meet detailed, sanitary conditions to ensure the vanilla remains safe. FDA regulations are no joke.
Reason #6: Theft
Last but not least, theft.
Unfortunately, many people steal vanilla pods before farmers get a chance to harvest them.
There's a huge black market for stolen vanilla pods, due to their high value, to sell on the market illegally. Since it's difficult to mark or brand beans, it's almost impossible to catch the thieves.
Some farmers have taken to branding their plants or hiring security personnel to guard their crops. However, theft still occurs and can cause prices to skyrocket.
Why is Artificial Vanilla so Cheap? (Comparatively)
Artificial vanilla, though synthetic and lab-grown, is still easier and cheaper to produce than real vanilla.
Real vanilla pods contain vanillin, a chemical that provides that classic taste and aroma. Vanillin is still used in artificial vanilla, but it's not derived from the bean.
Synthetic vanilla is usually made from guaiacol or lignin, which are both products of wood pulp. Vanillylmandelic acid when combined with oxygen produces vanillin. This derivation process is far less time-consuming than producing true vanilla extract. Hence the lower price.
Fun fact: long ago, vanillin was also harvested from beaver's castor glands. Yes, the area right next to their butts. However, the process was so expensive and time-consuming (not to mention gross) that it's no longer widely practiced.
Real Vanilla Vs Artificial
There are a few factors to keep in mind when choosing between real vanilla and artificial: price, quality, and taste.
Artificial vanilla is FAR less expensive than vanilla extract. In fact, it usually costs just a few cents per ounce, whereas true vanilla costs around 62 cents per teaspoon. If price is your only qualifier, then artificial vanilla is the way to go.
Of course, this depends on your tastebuds and preferences, but I will always choose real vanilla extract when I can. Plus, there are some potential consequences to consuming large amounts of artificial vanilla.
Synthetic vanilla is unnatural; some people have reported complications after ingesting it. Some noticed headaches or migraines after consuming large quantities. Others experienced allergic reactions. If you're health-conscious or chronically ill, you may want to think twice before purchasing synthetic vanilla.
Artificial vanilla is usually far more potent than true vanilla. Many bakers and chefs stay away from artificial vanilla since it also leaves a bitter aftertaste. True vanilla also retains a larger flavor profile when exposed to high temperatures (the cooking process). Whereas artificial vanilla doesn't since it's just vanillin.
Of course, true vanilla is not accessible for many due to its high price. So, if you can't afford to shell out the big bucks for vanilla but hate the artificial stuff, try these substitutes instead.
Well, vanilla is very expensive. There you have it, folks.
However, the price is mostly justified. Without their native habitat, proper growing conditions, and pollinators, the beans are practically impossible to grow. Add theft, extreme weather, the manufacturing process, and shipping costs on top of that, and suddenly the price tag makes sense.
For some, the quality and taste are worth the price, for others not so much. Hopefully, these reasons give you a broader understanding of the intensive process behind the price. Those bottles in the baking aisle are worth more than they look!
Founder of Robust Kitchen