Vanilla extract derives from an orchid plant and is the most commonly used flavouring in the Western world. It is full of anti-oxidants and studies have shown it has various other health benefits as well. For example, in 2011 the European Journal of Pharmacology discovered it helps protect the liver and acts as an anti-inflamatory. In 2013 the Indian Journal of Experimental Biology also said that vanilla could reduce cholesterol.
Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanilla
Vanilla isn't just used in food, but also scented candles, perfumes, and beauty products. It is said to be relaxing and soothing, so can be good for aromatherapy.
Vanilla is a fascinating plant, full of interesting facts. Did you know:
There are 35,000 species of orchid, but only vanilla is edible.
Vanilla orchids can only grow 23 degrees on either side of the equator.
Vanilla only flowers for 24 hours, and has to be pollinated within this time.
Vanilla orchids have to be pollinated by hand, which is why it is the second most expensive spice after saffron.
A vanilla plant must be 4 ½ years old before it is harvestable.
Vanilla plants are parasites because they need a host tree to grown on.
Vanilla plants can grow up to 75 feet.
Vanilla extract is made by dissolving the beans in alcohol.
Vanilla bean. Image from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:B.navez
Unfortunately many food industries use vanilla essence rather than vanilla extract because it is cheaper. Vanilla essence is artificial, synthesising just one of the vanilla compounds. That means it contains little flavour and none of the health benefits of real vanilla.
You can't always avoid vanilla essence in supermarket products, but when cooking at home, you should always use vanilla extract.