You wouldn’t think it, but vanilla – the world’s most popular flavor – is difficult to grow, incredibly expensive, and is in extremely short supply.
In the hilly forests of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean, where 80 per cent of vanilla orchids are grown, farmers battle cyclones, deforestation, exploitation, and theft – all of which cause supply shortages, and price surges, and can force worried farmers into picking the plant before it is ripe – which lowers its quality.
It’s little surprise then that vanilla is the world’s second most expensive spice – after saffron – at around $200 per pound. Or that the vast majority of food industries use synthetic alternatives.
Harvesting the vanilla is only the start of the story. The beans must then undergo the six month-long curing process that gives them their signature aroma and flavor.
An Israeli startup believes it has cracked the code to providing consistent quality, quantity, and cost of vanilla beans with its smart farms.
It controls indoor environmental conditions like temperature and humidity, so that saplings become mature in two years rather than four.
“Because vanilla is grown traditionally, you don’t know how many tons will reach production every year,” says Raz Krizevski, CTO and Co-founder of Vanilla Vida. “And the curing process, which is similar to roasting coffee, is also done in open field conditions.
“So not only do you not know how many tons it will be, you don’t know exactly what flavor you’re going to end up with. This is exactly what we’re trying to solve, by bringing the entire operation indoors.”
But its biggest breakthrough is using a computer-guided curing process to increase the potency of the orchid’s flavor and aroma in any given batch of beans, slashing the lengthy curing process to just two or three months.
It says it can tailor the flavor according to its customer needs – increasing the end product’s caramel, smoky, or chocolatey notes.
Traditional curing means plunging the beans in boiling water for several minutes, to release the enzymes that begin producing vanillin, the molecule that gives it that distinct smell and taste.
For the next two or three months they’re left to bask in the sun during the day – before wrapped in wool blankets and kept in airtight containers at night. That’s designed to maintain the high temperatures and increase potency.
After that, they are stored in closed boxes for months to fully develop the desired aroma and flavor.
Vanilla Vida does things a little differently. “We have a couple of layers to the smart curing. One of them is a patented and FDA-approved technology that involves taking the beans and dipping them in what we call a ‘magic solution’,” Krizevski tells NoCamels.
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“This increases the amount of ‘flavor building blocks’ by using compounds that we eat every day, like sugars and amino acids. It increases the fuel for the metabolism, which makes the flavor more potent.”
They then use hyperspectral imaging – which measures light far beyond what humans can see – to scan the beans, optimize the curing time each one needs by controlling conditions like temperature and humidity, and storing them in a way that doesn’t alter the flavor.
Through drying processes and other elements, they can make the vanilla taste and smell differently, just as coffee is roasted in a variety of ways to get different flavors and aromas.
The startup imports unripe vanilla pods from Madagascar, which are ripened and cured with its smart process to reach a potency of five per cent vanillin – the component that primarily gives vanilla its strong flavor.
It says that this results in an aroma and flavor that is three times more concentrated than the traditionally cultivated variety, which has less than two per cent vanillin.
It is in the process of growing its own vanilla beans in-house, and expects the first batch to ripen this year – with a seven per cent vanillin yield, even stronger than the beans it has cured until now.
Growing vanilla plants indoors isn’t a breakthrough in and of itself – though it isn’t widely done, because operation costs are very expensive, from heating and cooling, to electricity and water.
What Vanilla Vida does differently is that it uses a sophisticated climate-controlled environment, and cures beans so it can control their metabolism, and increase vanillin production.
It doesn’t see itself replacing traditional vanilla farmers. Nearly 95 per cent of the vanilla used globally is actually synthetic because cultivating natural vanilla is so expensive.
The company says that with its technology, the price could decrease – but not in such a way that it will disrupt the market.
Vanilla extract is normally used for used for ice cream and soft drinks, as well as for baked goods, puddings, cakes, cookies, for tobacco and liqueurs, and as a fragrance ingredient in perfumery.
Vanilla Vida has customers in six different countries, including restaurants and flavor and fragrance companies. It believes that it will cause a visible change to the vanilla supply chain starting in 2024 or 2025.