Native Brazilian vanilla has 'good potential' to rival Vanilla planifolia

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

Natural vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world. © GettyImages/suti
Natural vanilla is one of the most expensive spices in the world. © GettyImages/suti

Related tags: Vanilla, Biodiversity, Sourcing, Native ingredients

Scientists have discovered the Vanilla bahiana orchid has 'good production potential' to become an alternative source of natural vanilla as it contains the right enzymes for vanillin biosynthesis.

Despite being one of the most popular flavors in the world, natural vanilla production is expensive, time-consuming and dependent on the clonal cultivation of just two species: Vanilla planifolia​ and Vanilla tahitensis. 

Of these two species, Vanilla planifolia ​provides around 95% of global production.

According to scientists from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State, however, it is important to find alternative sources of natural vanilla for reasons of both economics and biodiversity.

“Clonal production of V. planifolia has depleted the genetic variability and left the species vulnerable to diseases, jeopardizing the world supply,” ​they write.

Finding new vanilla species could improve growers’ resilience in the face of climate shocks and disease, bring new flavors to the market, increase production, and expand plant biodiversity, they say. There is also a growing market demand for natural vanilla as opposed to cheap synthetic vanillin.

Endemic to the Atlantic rainforest

According to the researchers, Vanilla bahiana, ​endemic to Brazil's Atlantic rainforest, has the potential to help the market diversify as it expresses some of the most important enzymes in the biosynthesis of vanilla flavor compounds, such as ACC synthase, 2 chalcone-flavonone isomerase, PAL, OMTs and vanillin synthase.

“[…] The vanillin content of the samples evaluated here is within the same order of magnitude as the commercial varieties of V. planifolia,” ​they write. “[This] may indicate a good production potential of the new species​.”

The enzyme vanillin synthase, crucial for transforming ferulic acid into vanillin as part of vanillin biosynthesis, was a significant finding of the study, according to the scientists.

'A wide range' of vanilla-production proteins identified

Brazil Atlantic rainforest, Bahia, Alex Saberi
Vanilla bahiana is endemic to Brazil's Atlantic rainforest. © GettyImages/Alex Saberi

The scientists sourced three mature green Vanilla bahiana​ pods from the Sugarloaf Mountain and Urca Natural Monument area in Rio de Janeiro city, an area of protected Atlantic rainforest.

They then freeze-dried and powdered the pods and assayed six extraction solutions, identifying a total of 2,236 proteins, including “a wide range​” that are related to flowering, fruiting and vanilla-flavor production.

"Among these [total proteins], 75 were highlighted as useful for the synthesis of compounds related to vanilla flavor, such as vanillin synthase, which was successfully extracted with 1% sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), which also improved the variety of the extracted proteins."

Using SDS to extract the proteins could be a good alternative to phenol extraction, they add, as it does not involve excessive manipulation of samples and is less toxic. It allowed the scientists to extract a wide variety of proteins, and could be used to study the proteins in the pods of other vanilla species, they suggest.

Changing sources

Most commercial vanilla is from the Vanilla planifolia​ orchid, native to Mexico.

For many years, Mexico was the only producing country as the orchid could only be pollinated by the Mexican Melipona​ bee or hummingbirds.

In 1841, a method to pollinate the orchid by hand shifted global supply chain dynamics and Madagascar dominated production.

Madagascan supplies are vulnerable to climate shocks, however. Cyclones damaged vanilla supplies in 2003 and 2017, causing prices to fluctuate wildly. The price per kilo in January 2018 was US$612.50 compared to US$25 per kilo in 2010, according to Mintec,

Suppliers have therefore sought to diversify their sourcing, and Indonesia is now a significant producer.

Madagascar produced 3,227 tons of vanilla in 2017, followed by Indonesia (2,402t), China (662t) and Mexico (515t), according to data from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAOSTAT).

Brazil does not feature as a vanilla-producing country.

Source: Food Research International

“Vanilla bahiana, a contribution from the Atlantic Forest biodiversity for the production of vanilla: A proteomic approach through high-definition nanoLC/MS”

Available online ahead of print, doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2019.02.038

Authors: Ellen Moura Lopes, Roberta Gomes Linhares, Lucas de Oliveira Pires et. al.

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