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The wholesale price of vanilla pods has escalated almost 500% over the past four and a half years. This is due to severe weather conditions affecting quality and availability, making vanilla the second-most expensive spice after saffron, and worth more per kilogram than silver.

Given this situation, it is certainly important to know how food fraud can be committed with vanilla and how can one can detect adulteration.

Major producers

Madagascar currently produces 80% of the world’s vanilla, mainly in the northern region of Sava, famous for the cultivation of a variety of Bourbon vanilla. Although not native to Madagascar, vanilla can only grow 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The rest of the world’s vanilla crop comes from Mexico and Tahiti.

Pure vanilla-bean extract is made by putting vanilla beans in a solution of ethyl alcohol and water. Its costly production and labour-intensive extraction process coupled with cyclones, drought and theft, have contributed to making this ingredient susceptible to food fraud.

How vanilla is adulterated

There are numerous ways that pure vanilla extract can be adulterated. A common adulterant is cheaper tonka-bean extract. It smells and tastes like vanilla-bean extract because of the presence of a phenolic compound called coumarin, found in both vanilla and tonka beans.

Since pure vanilla extract does not contain coumarin, it can be used as a marker compound to detect adulteration using tonka-bean extracts.

There are several analytical methods available for the detection of adulterated vanilla. Some techniques are costly, with long turnover times. There are, however, techniques offering accurate separation and swift detection of this type of adulterant.

Previous food fraud cases

In the early 2000s, in India, a food adulteration incident was recorded, involving the use of mercury to adulterate vanilla extract. Heavy-metal presence or contamination can be detected with the use of ICP or AAS.

Coumarin is a common phenolic compound found naturally in many plants, including spices such as true cinnamon, made from the bark of the Cinnamomum verum plant (also known as Cinnamomum zeylanicum). Cinnamon contains extremely low levels of coumarin, but tonka bean contains notably high concentrations.

For people taking blood thinners, consuming excessive amounts of coumarin may increase their risk of bleeding. Coumarin is toxic, and inhibits the functioning of the liver, which plays a role in mopping up poisons and clearing them from the body. For more information and assistance on this topic, visit FACTS – Food Stuff SA