Vanilla is one of the most appreciated flavors globally and high demand for its natural flavor from vanilla pods make it the second most valuable spice in the world after saffron. But with cheaper synthetic alternatives available, the industry faces significant risk from economically motivated adulteration.


Vanilla flavors are among the most widely used worldwide and are found in numerous commodities from ice creams, dairy products, bakery goods and desserts to spirits and beverages, even perfumes and personal care products.

Authentic vanilla flavor is traditionally made from the commonly named vanilla pods, which derive from the plant genus Vanilla, primarily from the Mexican species Vanilla planifolia. Other species, cultivated on a smaller scale, include Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla pompona. Vanilla requires special growth conditions, as every flower is hand pollinated, and requires an elaborate curing procedure.

The major aroma-active substance of vanilla flavor is vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde), which is naturally occurring in cured vanilla beans and has a characteristic, pleasantly sweet flavor.

The Value of Vanilla

Today, less than 1% of the global demand for vanillin is covered by vanilla pods. Nevertheless, the popularity of and high demand for the vanilla flavor make it the second most valuable spice in the world, after saffron. In 2017, the price of vanilla pods was around USD 500/kg or higher, whereas the price for synthetic vanillin was around USD 10/kg.

Many factors influence the production and global price of vanilla: extreme and unstable weather conditions, political unrest in source areas, early harvesting, uncontrolled curing procedures, and shortcuts in storage conditions affecting quality.

Due to huge price deviations and because both the demand for natural vanilla flavor or vanillin isolated from the vanilla bean is very high, biotechnologically obtained and synthetic vanillins are much cheaper. Therefore, there is a significant risk of economically motivated adulteration (EMA), where natural vanillin from vanilla pods is replaced by cheaper synthetic vanillin.

Natural vs Synthetic Vanillin

Vanillin can be produced by natural raw materials such as clove, curcumin, coumarin and cereals like rice and corn. These vanillins also retain a high price and demand is rising, driven by consumer demand for natural flavors. These biotechnology-derived vanillins can be labelled as “natural vanillin” according to European regulation 1334/2008 and the US FDA 21CFR101.22.

Chemosynthetically-derived vanillin is predominantly obtained from fossil fuels, i.e. catechol to synthetic guaiacol. Another synthetic vanillin is obtained by oxidation of lignosulfonic acid, which is obtained during the course of sulfite leaching in paper and cellulose production.

Vanilla’s Country of Origin

The main growing areas of the genus Vanilla are Madagascar, the Comoros and La Reunion, China, Uganda, Mexico, India, Indonesia, Tahiti and Papua New Guinea. Although Madagascar traditionally produced the largest portion of vanilla pods worldwide, today the production of some Asian countries like Indonesia, China and India is increasing significantly.

Of the approximately 100 known vanilla species, only three are cultivated:

  • Vanilla planifolia, which has the greatest economic importance, is also traded under names such as Bourbon, Madagascar or Mexico vanilla. The note "Bourbon" is to be regarded as a geographical indication of origin. The source material must be from the "vanilla islands" (Madagascar, Comoros, Réunion, Seychelles, Mauritius)
  • Vanilla tahitensis, characterized by an aniseed note, has a lower proportion of vanillin than in Vanilla planifolia. Its main source areas are in the South Pacific
  • Vanilla pompona is only used for cosmetic products and perfumes. Mainly from the Americas (Central and South)
Examples of Economically Motivated Adulteration (EMA) of vanilla flavorings
Product claim
Vanilla extract Addition of (any) vanillin to the authentic vanilla extract
Natural vanilla flavoring
Addition of synthetic vanillin (acc. to reg.)
Bourbon vanilla ice cream
Use of (any) vanillin instead of Bourbon vanilla
Pure vanilla
Use of tonka extract in vanilla extract
Natural vanilla flavored yogurt
Addition of synthetic vanillin (acc. to reg.)
Bourbon vanilla extract Use of V. Tahitensis instead of V. Planifolia

Analytical authentication of vanilla flavors

There are multiple methods available for authenticating vanilla flavorings in terms of source material:

  • Gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry
  • Radiocarbon analysis
  • Compound specific carbon isotope analysis
  • The SNIF-NMR® site specific isotope analysis
  • Two-dimensional compound specific stable isotope analysis

However, many of the methods cannot distinguish between synthetic and natural sources. Others can only distinguish the synthetic from all other natural vanillins, including authentic vanilla. There are also precision issues or time and cost constraints.

Taking advantage of the technological developments in instrumentation, the combination of Gas Chromatography (GC) and Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) makes it possible to gauge not only carbon but also other isotope ratios such as hydrogen. This fast and cost-effective technique targets the vanillin and requires a relatively low sample quantity. It can be used in any matrix, from pure vanillins, extracts and flavoring mixtures, to consumer products.

Due to the multi isotope fingerprint, the method also provides high discrimination level of different types of vanillin: vanilla, natural and synthetic versions. It can also differentiate vanilla planifolia from vanilla tahitensis, another point of common EMA in vanilla flavorings. The intelligence gained from the hydrogen isotopes can be used to verify the geographical origin of the authentic vanilla, for instance Madagascar versus Papua New Guinea, China or Turkey.

Gas Chromatography (Combustion/Pyrolysis) Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (GC-C/P-IRMS) is a new method, that uses sophisticated instrumentation and a large dataset, to answer multiple questions when dealing with authentication of vanilla flavorings. The existing dataset is the largest currently available and it is constantly expanding with samples of authentic vanilla, as well as natural and synthetic vanillins.

Food Fraud Surveillance

Today’s globalized, complex supply chains provide food fraudsters with numerous opportunities to adulterate high value food products with cheaper ingredients. Food fraud is still a real challenge to identify, prevent and fight in order to achieve integrity in food. Authenticity is something that can be secured using analytical tools. And by securing authenticity, the integrity of the supply chain, brand reputation and consumer trust can be secured. In this cloud of analytical tools, the GC-C/P-IRMS can be considered as a reliable and robust method that covers multiple needs and serves many purposes.

Stable Isotope Ratio Analysis

SGS, together with our partner Imprint Analytics, offers a comprehensive range of services to help differentiate between natural and synthetic ingredients such as vanillins. Using stable isotope ratio analysis, our experts can verify the authenticity and origins of vanilla flavors.

SGS Digicomply

SGS Digicomply offers a dedicated database to global food fraud surveillance. This platform is constantly updating and aggregating facts from the most relevant sources, such as trade associations, governments, media and scientific institutions. Knowing your materials, ingredients and their associated risks is an essential part of the vulnerability assessment as prescribed by food safety certification schemes.

Watch our recent webinar on Authenticity Testing of Vanilla Flavors >

For the complete range of SGS services and support visit SGS Food Safety.

David Psomiadis
Head of Lab/Business Development Manager, Imprint Analytics
t: +43 676 39 69442