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Vanilla beans nutrition facts

Vanilla beans are pleasantly fragrant fruit pods obtained from the tropical climbing orchid, V. planifolia. Mayans were the early persons to use them to flavor chocolate drinks centuries before the Spanish first set their foot on Mexico in 1520. This highly prized bean is native to the tropical rain forests of Central America, and only recently its cultivation has spread to other tropical-regions through the European explorers.

Botanically, it is a perennial herbaceous climbing vine belonging to the family of Orchidaceae, in the genus: vanilla. Scientific name: Vanilla planifolia.

vanilla beans on a vanilla planifolia vine
Vanilla beans in a vine Vanilla planifolia.
Note for ready to harvest deep green colored mature beans.

The vanilla plant has unique growth characteristics. It requires a tree or pole support to grow in height. A matured vine bears many deep trumpet-shape configuring flowers. At its natural habitat, flowers open up just for a day which sooner should be pollinated either by Melipona bee or long beaked humming birds. However, under supervised cultivation farms, they are manually hand-pollinated. Vanilla beans now grown at commercially scale in Madagascar, Indonesia, India, Puerto Rica, and West Indies.

dried vanilla pods
Processed vanilla beans. The beans turn dark and appear shriveled.
Photo courtesy: acfou

There exist three main cultivars of vanilla. Among them, Vanilla planifolia is the most sought-after vanills bean worldwide. The other species include Vanilla pompona and Vanilla tahitiensis (grown in Polynesian islands). However, their vanillin composition is inferior to Vanilla planifolia.

Unripe vanilla pods are harvested when they reach 5-8 inches in length, and begin to turn light-yellow. They are then blanched briefly in boiling water, sweated, and dried under sun over a period of 2-3 weeks until they become thin, shriveled, dark-brown pods. Vanillin, a kind of white crystalline efflorescence, appears inside in some of the superior quality pods.

Health benefits of vanilla

  • Vanilla beans are one of the expensive non-pungent spices used especially as a flavoring agent in wide array of sweet-drinks and confectionaries.

  • Vanilla extract is chiefly composed of simple and complex sugars, essential oils, vitamins, and minerals.

  • The chief chemical component in the beans is vanillin. The pods also compose of numerous traces of other constituents such as eugenol, caproic acid, phenoles, phenol ether, alcohols, carbonyl compounds, acids, ester, lactones, aliphatic and aromatic carbohydrates and vitispiranes.

  • Ancient Mayans believed that adding vanilla in drinks would give aphrodisiac effects. No modern research study, however, establishes its role in the treatment of sexual dysfunctions.

  • Its extract contains small amounts of B-complex groups of vitamins such as niacin, pantothenic acid, thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B-6. These vitamins help in enzyme synthesis, nervous system function and regulating body metabolism.

  • This condiment spice also contains small traces of minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc. Potassium is an important component of cell and body fluids that helps control heart rate and blood pressure.

Selection and storage

Vanilla bean pods can be available in herb and spice stores year around. One may also find vanilla essence and vanilla sugar in these stores. Vanilla bean pods can be usually available either singly or in small bundles often packed inside long tube or jar.

Buy vanilla products from authentic sources since oftentimes adulteration with artificial flavorings is quite common. A well processed good-quality pod will remain potent for as long as 3-4 years.

Alternatively, store whole vanilla bean in a jar of caster sugar and allow 3-4 weeks for the flavor to permeate into the sugar completely. This fragrant rich vanilla-sugar can be employed in cakes, puddings, pies and ice-creams.

Culinary uses

vanilla ice-1cream
Vanilla ice-cream on top of muffin!
Photo courtesy: shimelle

vanilla beans ice cream with berries
Vanilla beans ice cream with blackberries and raspberries. Photo: kimberlykv

Real vanilla is pleasantly aromatic and a very expensive spice only after saffron. In general, natural vanilla extract is made by finely chopping the beans and infusing them by dripping alcohol on the pieces.

Alternatively, the beans are bruised and infused in milk or cream for making ice-cream and sweet puddings.

Here are some serving tips:

  • One of the finest flavoring bases used exclusively in sweet cookery, vanilla is added to cakes, biscuits, desserts, and puddings.

  • It is also used in other confectionary items to make chocolates, ice-creams, custards, chocolate drinks, etc.

Safety profile

Pure vanilla products are safe to use even in pregnancy and have no reported incidences of adverse reactions or toxicity.

(Medical disclaimer: The information and reference guides on this website are intended solely for the general information for the reader. It is not to be used to diagnose health problems or for treatment purposes. It is not a substitute for medical care provided by a licensed and qualified health professional. Please consult your health care provider for any advice on medications.)

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Further resources:

1. Indian Institute of Spices Research.

2. USDA National Nutrient database.

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