Vanilla beans (Vanilla planifolia1) are long thin pods from a variety of orchid that’s grown in a commercial scale in Madagascar, India, Indonesia, Puerto Rico and the West Indies.2,3 When opened, the pods are waxy and dark, filled with little brown specks and emit a sweet fragrance.4,5
There are three types of vanilla beans: Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian. Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla is a thin pod with a rich and sweet flavor, the sweetest of the three.
Mexican vanilla tastes smooth and rich, while Tahitian vanilla has the thickest and darkest-colored pod that’s aromatic but not as flavorful as the two.6 Vanilla beans have no flavor or aroma when they are first planted. Once vanilla pods are handpicked from the plant, they are dipped immediately in boiling water to stop growth, heated under the sun and wrapped to sweat at night for up to 20 days.
To develop that distinct vanilla scent and taste, pods are air-dried and fermented for four to six months, producing the vanilla beans most of us are familiar with.
The beans can be sold as they are, or made into paste or powder. Vanilla bean paste is produced by scraping out the vanilla pod and infusing the insides into a thick and sweet syrup made with sugar, water and thickener.7,8 Meanwhile, vanilla bean powder is made from dried and powdered vanilla beans, but without added sugar or alcohol.9
Health Benefits of Vanilla Beans
Most people appreciate vanilla beans only for their pleasing aroma and sweet taste, but these beans actually have health benefits. Research has linked vanillin, vanilla’s chief chemical component, to:10,11
• Lowering the body’s cholesterol levels, which is essential for people with a high risk for heart attack and stroke
Vanilla beans have antioxidants that help prevent cell and tissue breakdown, stimulate the body’s natural regrowth and eliminate free radicals. The antioxidants also shield the immune system, decrease body stress and encourage faster recovery from injuries or illnesses.12
Small traces of calcium, manganese, magnesium, potassium, iron and zinc are found in vanilla beans. In particular, potassium is a vital component of cell and body fluids, helping regulate heart rate and blood pressure levels.13
Plus, the B vitamins thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5) and pyridoxine (B6) in vanilla beans assist with enzyme synthesis, enhance nervous system function and regulate body metabolism. Vanilla beans could also be a weight loss aid by decreasing appetite and increasing your metabolism’s efficiency.14
Common Uses of Vanilla Beans
Vanilla beans have culinary uses, especially when it comes to making sweet foods15 or flavoring drinks.16 Sometimes, vanilla beans are used for cosmetic purposes, with the extract being added to hygiene and beauty products.
A combination of vanilla essential oil and carrier oil could strengthen hair and induce blood flow to the scalp, encouraging growth and production of healthier hair.17 Vanilla beans possess medicinal capabilities too. Vanilla beans’ analgesic properties assist in relieving coughs, colds, sore throats and respiratory infections, while their antibacterial properties help remove underlying body infection/s.
If you want to inhibit vomiting, diarrhea, cramps and upset stomachs and lessen gut inflammation, drinking vanilla-infused herbal tea may be helpful. In addition, a mixture of vanilla extract and warm water delivers an anesthetic effect to the throat when gargled, since it coats the said area.18
Vanilla also helps eliminate acne-causing infection/s, speeding up the skin’s healing process and decreasing scar appearance. Topical vanilla treatments also help heal burns, cuts and wounds. However, these may cause skin damage, so talk to your physician first or take an allergen test prior to using.19
How to Grow Vanilla Beans
If you’re interested in growing vanilla beans at home, you will need the following:20,21
• Tree or pole support
• Neutral soil with a pH level of 6.6 to 7.5 (you can purchase a proper soil mix specific to orchids)
• Well-draining and humus-rich growing medium
• A growing area with high humidity, where nighttime temperatures don’t drop below 55 degrees Fahrenheit
• Bright light and filtered shade
Once planted, ensure that the soil is evenly moist, but do not overwater. In the spring and summer, lightly fertilize the plant with an orchid fertilizer every two weeks. Store the plant in your greenhouse or indoors with other houseplants.22 Plants don’t produce vanilla beans until after three years. During mid-spring to late summer, the matured vine bears trumpet-shaped white, yellow or green flowers that are about 5 inches across.
When the flowers bloom, they only stay open for one day, and must be pollinated immediately by the Mellipona bee or long-beaked hummingbird 12 hours after opening.23,24
After successful pollination, 6- to 10-inch-long vanilla pods will grow nine months later. These are typically harvested when they are 5 to 8 inches long and have a light-yellow color. The pods are briefly blanched in boiling water, and are “sweated” and dried under the sun for two to three weeks until they turn into thin, shriveled and dark-brown beans.25
Vanilla Bean Recipes to Try
Search “vanilla bean recipe” online and you’ll see recipes by the dozen, whether for vanilla bean cheesecakes, cupcakes, cookies or biscuits.26 However, picking a delicious and healthy recipe is tricky, since many of these are sugar-loaded. This sugar-free vanilla bean ice cream recipe solves this predicament and is guaranteed to tickle everyone’s taste buds:27
Sugar-Free Vanilla Bean Ice Cream (Low-Carb and Egg-Free)
• 1/2 cup raw, grass-fed milk
• 1/2 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
• 1/2 vanilla bean pod or use 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 4 droppers full vanilla liquid stevia
• Pinch of Himalayan salt
1. Pour grass fed and almond milk into a blender.
2. Slice the vanilla bean down the middle with a paring knife.
3. Using the side of the knife, scrape the inside of the vanilla bean pod, and add that and the rest of the ingredients to blender.
4. Once blended, add mixture to an ice cream machine and follow manufacturer’s instructions.
5. Enjoy once ready.
This recipe makes 1 serving.
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Vanilla beans are available in health stores year-round. When choosing beans, make sure they are plump and thin-skinned to get the most seeds possible. Vanilla pods should be dark brown (nearly black in color) and pliable enough to wrap around your finger without breaking. Store beans by tightly wrapping them in plastic, placing in an airtight jar and refrigerating for up to six months.28
If you don’t have fresh vanilla beans, use 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract as a vanilla bean substitute. This amount is equal to an inch-long vanilla bean. However, vanilla extract is created by infusing vanilla bean in alcohol and water, subduing that rich flavor. Plus, imitation versions of vanilla extracts have weak and tinny aftertastes.29 A less risky substitute is vanilla bean paste. Use a tablespoon of paste for every whole vanilla bean.30
What Is Vanilla Bean Oil Used For?
Using vanilla bean oil also allows you to obtain vanilla beans’ health potential. It can be used topically to assist in healing burns, promoting healthy skin and boosting hair growth. People with muscle or joint pain also use vanilla oil for massages.
If you’re practicing aromatherapy, adding vanilla bean to your infuser may contribute to increased feelings of calmness, while easing nausea or queasiness.31,32 The vanillin in the oil contains antioxidant and antispasmodic capabilities, heals wounds and relieves stomach problems and fevers.33
However, caution is required for vanilla oil. Cheap vanilla oils are heavily processed and mixed with synthetic materials, but are still labeled “100 percent pure vanilla oil.” In particular, vanilla oil extracts, namely vanilla carbon dioxide, vanilla absolute and vanilla oleoresin, use solvents to extract the oil. You’re definitely better off making your own vanilla oil infusion.
Even worse, some vanilla oils from Mexico are combined with the tonka bean that contains coumarin, a dangerous chemical that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned since 1940.34
Before using vanilla oil, consult a physician and/or undergo an allergen test. If you experience headaches or nausea after smelling the oil, stop using it immediately. Although no major side effects have been reported, prolonged exposure to the scent may be harmful for your nervous system.35