When you hear “vanilla extract,” what do you think of? Your first answer is probably dessert, but what about antioxidant? Anti-inflammatory? Mental health booster?
Vanilla extract is great for all of those things and more! There’s a reason vanilla is one of the most popular flavors in the world when it comes to baking and sweets. Not only does it have an incredibly pleasant taste and aroma, but it contains a huge number of health benefits with a relatively low calorie impact.
This yummy dessert spice is different from the also incredible vanilla oil in that vanilla extract is made from percolating vanilla beans in alcohol, while the oil is created by a similar process in a carrier oil (like almond oil).
From the 1400s, when it was simply a local treasure found in a small part of Mexico, into this 21st century, vanilla has held a special place in the hungry hearts of many people. I know you do (or will) love it, too, and that’s a great thing, because vanilla extract benefits everything from the heart to the body to the mind.
What Is Vanilla Extract?
Put simply, vanilla extract is a solution created with vanilla beans and alcohol. When submerged in alcohol, the vanilla beans (also known as pods) release vanillin, the major flavor compound found in vanilla. This dark brown liquid (also referred to as a vanilla tincture) can then be used to enhance the sweetness of desserts.
The answer is rarely that simple, however. It’s estimated that some 95 percent of vanilla extract for sale commercially is derived not from vanilla beans, but from lignin, a byproduct of paper waste products that can be used to create “synthetic” vanillin. (10) This synthetic imitation is made from the leftover sawdust in paper mills and similar industries. (11)
Obviously, vanilla extract made commercially in this way lacks any of the health benefits you can reap with homemade vanilla extract. The unfortunate synthetic production of vanilla extract was necessitated by an increasing demand that cannot easily be met by production due to the labor-intensive process of growing vanilla plants and extracting their flavor.
Don’t let that stop you from making your own extract. As a bonus, true vanilla extract (especially when made from Madagascar vanilla beans) has a richer flavor than that from synthetic vanillin. If you’re not sure you’re ready to make your own, look for Vanilla Co2 Total Extract, which should be the closest to natural and homemade you can purchase.
The vanilla plant (of the genus Vanilla, most often of the species V. planifolia originating from Mexico) is a flowering vine that grows according to the structure supporting its height, reaching up to 300 feet in length. Vanilla “beans” are the dried orchids from the vine that contain the many compounds, including vanillin, that contribute to the delicious flavor.
One serving of vanilla extract (about one tablespoon or 13 grams) contains about:
- 37 calories
- 1.6 grams carbohydrate
- 19.2 milligrams potassium (1 percent DV)
Keep in mind that these numbers are based on the quality of commercially produced vanilla extract, and the actual numbers for the homemade variety may vary. Officially, vanilla extract must contain a base of 35 percent alcohol.
1. It’s a Powerful Antioxidant
I know you hear about the antioxidant capability of various foods, but why exactly is that so important? Antioxidants in your diet are important because the free radicals that enter your body through exposure to chemicals, the sun and other factors have the potential to cause lasting damage. “Oxidative stress,” the term for this free radical damage, leads to a variety of diseases and contributes to the formation of cancer.
Vanillin has been a well-known antioxidant for some time. (1) Interestingly, though, vanillin shows lower antioxidant activity than vanilla extract, which has now gained interest as a useful product in “food preservation and in health supplements as nutraceuticals.” (2)
Vanilla products also exhibit antibacterial properties. (3) This may be part of why they’re included in a regimen to treat cold sores naturally. I recommend soaking a cotton ball with the extract, then applying it to your cold sore about four times per day until you see the sore disappear. You will probably notice a reduction in the inflammation of the cold sore fairly soon after applying for the first time.
3. Reduces Inflammation in the Body
Not only does vanilla have the potential to reduce inflammation on a cold sore, but it helps reduce the overall inflammation in your entire body. Inflammation is a serious danger because it’s at the root of most diseases. Fortunately, medical science has begun to recognize the massive impact of chronic inflammation, and it’s considered an emerging field in the health care research field.
In addition to removing inflammatory foods from your diet (foods high in sugar, pasteurized dairy and conventional meat are a few examples), you can also incorporate elements into your diet that actively reduce inflammation that may already be present.
One study tested on rats delving in to the anti-inflammatory properties of vanillin, in addition to its antioxidant activity, found that it was especially significant in helping prevent and reduce the damage of liver injury. (4)
4. Improves Mental Health
Vanilla has also been known to reduce anxiety and depression in some patients. (5) This reaction may be due in part to to its anti-inflammatory properties.
You see, inflammation doesn’t affect only your risk of disease. It also seems to be responsible for some forms of mental instability. When the brain is stressed in some way, whether it be from injury, chronic mental/emotional stress, infection or even nutritional deficiencies, it triggers the release of what are known as “pro-inflammatory cytokines.” Cytokines are released by your immune system in response to sickness or other factors, and they come in various forms, including pro-inflammatory.
Regular inflammation is a normal bodily function, as your well-created system attempts to rid you of infection or other harm. But when too much of any pro-inflammatory cytokine is released, your body begins to react physically and psychologically, known as “sickness behavior.”
This is seen in some research into depression, where researchers found the pro-inflammatory cytokine TNF-alpha in much higher quantities in patients diagnosed with depression than those who were not. (6)
Therefore, it’s not surprising that vanillin was found to have antidepressant results, as it may be related to its ability to lower inflammation (although that was not mentioned specifically in this study). Not so shockingly, the reaction subjects experienced was on par with their positive reaction to fluoxetine, a common SSRI drug prescribed for depression. Unlike fluoxetine, which has “common” side effects, including strange dreams, pain, vomiting, diarrhea, flu symptoms and impotence — and about a dozen others — vanillin does not exhibit side effects in animal studies. (7)
I’m a firm believer in using food as medicine without resorting to options like dangerous psychotropic drugs. This is another example of how the plants placed on this planet for our benefit do truly benefit us, without having to endure the many terrifying side effects of unnatural chemicals.
5. May Naturally Reduce Fever
6. Lowers Cholesterol
In preliminary studies on rats, vanillin has been found to have a potential in lowering high cholesterol. (9) For those who need to lower cholesterol naturally and fast, incorporating vanilla extract into food may be one of the helpful options.
How to Make
So, are you ready to take the plunge? I promise, it’s completely painless.
To make your own homemade vanilla extract, you need:
- An 8-ounce glass bottle or jar
- 6–8 vanilla beans
- Liquor with about 35 percent alcohol (around 70 proof — you can try vodka, bourbon, rum or brandy)
First, slice each bean along the length of the entire pod. Depending on the size of the bottle, you can also cut the pods down into smaller sections to make it easier to get them inside your container.
Now, pour exactly one cup (no cheating!) of your chosen alcohol into your bottle. The beans should now all be submerged within the alcohol.
Finally, you get to… wait! Good vanilla extract takes about eight weeks to fully mature, so store the bottle in a room temperature area without direct sunlight exposure. For best results, gently shake the mixture once a week.
Once your extract is complete, you have the choice to remove or leave in the vanilla beans. If left in (and kept submerged), the flavor will continue to age, similar to wine.
Whatever the time of year and whatever the quality of your “sweet tooth,” I’ve got some incredible recipes for that homemade vanilla extract. For a sweet, fall dessert, I love to make this Coconut Peach Crumble, a delectable dessert that will impress without leaving you feeling icky.
For a different, unprocessed take on cake frosting, try using vanilla extract in this recipe for Cream Cheese Frosting, which is a welcome addition to a ton of great desserts and has no food additives you would find in store-bought frosting.
And what about using vanilla in your morning routine? One creative way might be to try this Orange Vanilla Bean Chia Pudding, an antioxidant-rich pudding that requires no added sugar.
Vanilla Interesting Facts
Until the middle of the 19th century, Mexico was the primary exporter of vanilla. The Totonacs, a historic Mexican people located on the east coast of the country, seem to be the first producers of this incredible plant. Totonac legend tells us that Princess Xanat, an immortal, was forbidden by her father, the king, to marry a mortal. After running away with her lover, the two were beheaded upon capture. Fortunately for us, their blood fell to the ground and created the vanilla vine.
Aztecs invaded Totonac land in the 15th century, finding this “black flower” to be quite the favorite among their people. Their leader, Tenochtitlan, required the Totonac people to pay tribute to the Aztecs by delivering vanilla to him.
Vanilla then made its way to Spain when the Aztecs were conquered. For centuries, this flavoring was considered nothing more than an “add-on” to chocolate sweets, even for the Aztecs. This changed in the 1600s thanks to a creative apothecary named Hugh Morgan, who had the thought to create chocolate-free, vanilla-flavored sweetmeats. They were a hit with Queen Elizabeth I.
In another 100 years, vanilla was a common flavoring for ice cream in Europe. Thomas Jefferson, who lived in Paris in the 1780s, found this such a delightful treat that he copied down a recipe that’s now preserved in the Library of Congress.
It took another century to see vanilla or vanilla extract as a fixture in other common recipes, although it’s now one of the most popular spices in desserts today. In 1886, John Pemberton’s Coca-Cola went on sale for the first time, containing the essential ingredient of vanilla and touting itself as “esteemed Brain tonic and Intellectual Beverage.”
The production of vanilla is, as I said earlier, a labor-intensive and expensive process, which is why vanilla ranks second on the list of expensive spices, missing out on the top spot to saffron. It seems nothing short of a miracle that vanilla even exists, because its method of pollination in its home of Mexico consists of an incredibly short window of 24 hours per flower, in which the flower must be pollinated by Melipona bees and, occasionally, hummingbirds, lest it wilts, dies and falls away from the plant.
When a 12-year-old slave of the country Réunion (a French settlement in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar) by the name of Edmond Albius found how to pollinate the orchids by hand, however, this mysterious plant began to flourish. Within about 60 years, in 1889, this country and neighboring Madagascar and the Comoros Islands had grown to produce about 80 percent of the world’s vanilla, 200 metric tons per year.
Today, vanilla is produced mainly in a combination of islands and countries in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, West Indies and Central/South America. Although Mexico is where vanilla got its start, it’s a modest exporter these days, falling short of the major exporters of Bourbon Vanilla and Madagascar Vanilla.
Risks and Side Effects
Vanilla has no common side effects or medicinal interactions, although in some rare cases may cause very mild allergic reactions, such as skin irritation, headaches or sleep problems. If you experience any of these in connection with consuming vanilla, consult your physician and discontinue use.
- Vanilla extract is not the same as vanilla oil. They’re created with similar processes, but the extract is created by percolating vanilla beans in alcohol, whereas vanilla oil comes from soaking the beans in a carrier oil.
- Vanilla extract contains a relatively low number of calories for its incredible flavor profile.
- Much of the “vanilla” products on the market commercially are not actually from vanilla beans, but synthesized from a sawdust byproduct known as lignin.
- Madagascar vanilla beans are known as the most flavor-packed species of vanilla beans.
- Making your own homemade vanilla extract is not very labor-intensive, but it does take about eight weeks.
- Vanilla extract has antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that have significant impact on various body systems.
- The production of vanilla began in Mexico in the 15th century and spread to Europe and the rest of the world throughout the subsequent centuries.
- Vanilla extract is extremely safe and has no known side effects, so you can use it to your heart’s content in a ton of your healthy desserts — and get the benefits of improved heart and mental health, among others.
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