Vanillin is an organic compound with the formula C8H8O3, part of the phenolic aldehydes group. Chemists also include it in the functional groups of hydroxyl and aldehyde, among others. Like the name suggests, it can be found in vanilla beans and it is the main component of their extract. Vanillin is a very popular ingredient in foods and beverages because of its distinctive taste but today industrially-produced alternatives are used more than the natural product.
Chemist Nicolas-Theodore Gobley was the first to produce pure vanillin in 1858. He started from a vanilla extract, then evaporated it until it became completely dry, adding hot water to crystallize the remains once more. A major breakthrough was achieved in 1874 by German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann, who discovered that a pine bark compound named coniferin (a glucoside of isoeugenol) can be used to produce vanillin and formulated a synthetic way to do so. The two German chemists also published the exact chemical structure of vanillin. Two years later, in 1876, another German chemist named Karl Reimer was able to synthesize vanillin from guaiacol. The German scientists united their forces and established the Haarmann and Reimer Company headquartered in Holzminden, Germany. The company was the first to industrially produce vanillin and still operates today as part of the Symrise group.
By the end of the century, a new commercial method was discovered, allowing the production of semi synthetic vanillin from eugenol, a compound easily found in clove oil. In the 1930's an even better alternative was found. This time the raw material was cheap and readily available, being the wood pulp remains from the paper industry. This waste discarded in the sulfite pulping process is rich in lignin. This method can be very effective, by the 1980's a single paper plant in Canada was able to produce more than half of the industrial vanillin consumed in the entire world. However, changes in the production of paper have later made its waste unsuitable for vanillin synthesis, even if some is still produced today from this raw material. The most modern way of synthetic vanillin production is today to start from guaiacol and glyoxylic acid, two of the petrochemical precursors of the compound.
It must be noted that the natural "vanilla extract" is not actually vanillin, but a mix of hundreds of other natural compounds. It is not easy to isolate vanillin from this mix, and it tends to be very expensive. Because of the price and exotic nature of the extract, scientists have searched for a method to synthetically produce vanillin for a long time. Today, most of the vanilla flavouring used in the food industry is pure synthetic vanillin diluted with water, rather than the natural product.
Initially, it was made from eugenol, but the raw material of choice in modern production plants is usually lignin or guaiacol. The two end products are not exactly the same. Most people consider vanilla flavouring produced from lignin to be superior in taste to its oil-synthesized counterpart. This is because lignin production also generates acetovanillone, a minor by-product that improves the flavour. This compound is absent from the artificial vanilla synthesized from guaiacol.
Vanillin has become a very cheap industrial product, since its raw material is inexpensive wood pulp debris. Of course, the real extract from vanilla beans remains very expensive. The low price and great availability of vanillin, synthetically produced from paper waste and petrochemicals, have made it a widely used ingredient in a variety of industries. It is one of the ubiquitous flavours of the modern world and can be found not only in sweets, beverages and other food products but also in medicines.
Of course, the main destination of vanillin is as a flavour in food, in particular in sweets. About 75% of the global production of vanillin is used in the chocolate and ice cream industries alone. Most of the remaining 25% is an ingredient in confectionery and bakery products.
Despite its health benefits, vanillin is rarely taken as a supplement. This is because we ingest large quantities of it anyway, from the normal food that we eat, and additional doses are not needed. It can still be found in numerous such supplements, mixed with other compounds, either as synthetic vanillin or the natural beans extract. It is usually added for flavouring, in various amounts, although some producers bet on its antioxidant qualities.
The easiest way to benefit from vanillin's antioxidant properties is to add it in food. You can use it similar to a spice, numerous popular recipes found on the internet include it as such. Eating it in your daily diet provides more than enough vanillin and there is no need to increase the dosage on purpose or to buy it as a dedicated supplement.
It is also widely used in industrial products, mainly because of its pleasant fragrance and affordable price tag. Vanillin is a key ingredient in many artificial flavours, like cream soda or various other creamy products. It can also be found in perfumes and other cosmetic products. Its strong flavour is very useful since it can hide unpleasant odours, vanillin is added for this purpose in pet food, livestock fodder, cleaning products and bad-tasting medicine.
Vanillin has found a use in lab testing to assist in visualizing the components of a reaction mixture. It acts like a general-purpose on thin layer chromatography plates, producing different colors for each component. A similar effect is used to visualize the localisation of tannins in cells, the so-called vanillin-HCl staining.
Like all other polyphenols, vanillin is believed to have a strong antioxidant effect. Antioxidants reduce the number of free radicals and have become a key area of focus for modern research. Scientists think they can stop the development of tumours, preventing cancer.
Modern medicine considers free radicals as the main cause for cancer as a result of tissue damage, as well as a factor in many other chronic diseases. Vanillin and other antioxidants are constantly being evaluated as means to neutralize these free agents. A key study on vanillin's potency as an antioxidant has revealed that it can block some chemicals found in the brain from reacting with one another. This appears to stop the expansion of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Another study, published in 2004, has considered the possible use of vanillin not only in the treatment of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, but also in septic shock. The results were promising but inconclusive and further research will be necessary.
Some scientists recommend vanillin in diets because it contributes to weight loss but this is a very controversial issue and many others contest it. Modern medicine tends to blame free radicals for all kinds of illnesses and even obesity is sometimes attributed to the damage caused by free radicals on human DNA. If that would be a fact, vanillin could decrease weight due to its antioxidant effect but for the moment it's considered mere speculation and most doctors dispute it.
Both natural vanilla extracts and artificial vanillin have been safely consumed for a long time. The only clearly proven negative effect is that some sensitive people can suffer from migraines, ranging from moderate to very strong, depending on the individual. However, given the variety of compounds found in our food today, blaming migraines solely on vanillin is not easy. If you suspect vanillin to be the cause of your headaches, examine everything else you've eaten during the week.
European studies of the 60's have revealed that vanillin can in fact be toxic but only in massive doses. While it is theoretically possible to cause a toxic reaction in lab animals, the required amount is so large that it would be basically impossible for a human to ingest so much of it. In any case, the US Food and Drug Administration has reacted to the results of the study by requiring that any content of either vanilla extract or vanillin must be specified on the packaging, in order to avoid any risks.
Obviously, any compound, even if it has natural origins, must be eaten in moderate amounts. However, no overdose effects have ever been reported in humans, which proves that massive quantities would be needed to replicate the results on lab rats.