All About Vanilla

We think of vanilla as a pantry staple, a pungent and aromatic spice that makes cookies taste extra special and gives our Vanilla Spiced Sunflower Seed Butter its name. So why is this common baking ingredient the world's second most expensive spice (after saffron)? Like so many food mysteries, the answer starts in the fields. In fact, vanilla might not have made it into our Seed Butter at all if it hadn’t been for one tiny species of bee in Mexico.

vanilla beans in madagascar
Photo Credit: Nielsen-Massey Vanillas


The oldest reports of vanilla come from the pre-Columbian Maya who used vanilla in a drink made with cocoa and other spices. As a native plant of Mexico, vanilla was historically pollinated by one species of bee unique to the region, so when the plants were brought to Madagascar in the late 1700s, where most of the world’s vanilla is grown today, the bees didn’t come with them and yields were poor. After decades of being unable to produce vanilla, it was discovered that without that specific bee species, vanilla needed to be hand-pollinated, one by one, by the farmers themselves. This simple yet labor-intensive method is still how vanilla is produced today.

Bean to Bakery - An 18 Month Process

Vanilla is part of the orchid family and grows on long vines that wind up trees or tall posts. It takes three to five years after it’s first planted before it starts to produce vanilla pods. Each vanilla plant produces several green, white, or yellow orchids that bloom at different times throughout the growing season and only stay in bloom for one day. This makes growing vanilla incredibly labor-intensive, requiring constant monitoring so that no orchids are missed in the hand-pollination process.

vanilla beans in madagascar
Photo Credit: Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

The labor requirements of vanilla don’t stop at hand-pollination. Every golden green vanilla bean is picked by hand while it is still unripe before being blanched in hot water, which stops the maturation process and activates the enzymes responsible for flavor. They are then placed in a sweat box, where their aroma and flavor develops even further. The pods are brought outside to cure under the sun during the day, then placed back in the sweat boxes at night. This process continues for more than a week, after which the pods are dried in the sun in single layers for several more weeks. Finally, dried pods are hand-sorted by size and quality.

drying vanilla beans in madagascar
Photo Credit: Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

Vanilla extract is made by crushing the dried vanilla beans and extracting the flavor with alcohol. While many suppliers use heat in the extraction process, our vanilla undergoes cold-extraction. This is a much longer process -- taking up to three weeks to complete -- but is better for preserving the sweet and creamy notes unique to the Madagascar vanilla we use. Because of the extra care that is put into making our vanilla, it can take up to 18 months to go from bean to Bakery where we add pure organic vanilla extract to our Vanilla Spiced Sunflower Seed Butter.

The Other Vanilla

Vanilla is therefore not a casually-used ingredient in our snacks - we created an entire product around it after all. For all of our products, we refuse to use artificial ingredients, but that is no small feat when sourcing vanilla. In fact, most of the vanilla flavor found in food is artificial. You might have seen “Artificial Flavors”, “Artificial Vanilla”, “Imitation Vanilla”, or “Vanillin” listed on food packages before. All artificial vanilla flavoring is made of synthetically-produced vanillin, a chemical compound naturally found in the pure vanilla plant. Vanillin can be made from clove oil, wood pulp, and even cow feces. However, roughly 85% of vanillin is synthesized from petrochemicals, a derivative of fossil fuels. That doesn’t sound very appetizing. Plus, artificial vanilla is synthesized from only a single primary flavor of vanilla, so it doesn’t include the other nuances of pure vanilla that give it such a rich and complex flavor.

All artificial vanilla flavoring is made of synthetically-produced vanillin, a chemical compound naturally found in the pure vanilla plant.

The subtle sweetness and rich depth of flavor of pure Madagascar vanilla extract is not something that can be replicated or replaced in our opinion. The result is that our Vanilla Spiced Sunflower Seed Butter is made with some of the best vanilla extract in the world.

dried and raw vanilla pods in madagascar
Photo Credit: Nielsen-Massey Vanillas

While you might just read organic vanilla extract on your snack label and not think twice about where it came from, its story can be traced back to tropical nations around the world where farmers work diligently every day to grow the best product they can. Like our Seed Bars, vanilla is a carefully hand-crafted ingredient that we are proud to use.