What is Vanilla?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Vanilla has both a literal and a figurative meaning. Literally, the term refers to a plant; the seedpod of the plant, which is often referred to as a vanilla bean; vanilla powder, which is produced from grinding the entire bean after it’s been dried; and the bean’s extract or a synthetic imitation which is used to flavor a whole range of culinary products from cakes and cookies to ice cream.

The three types of vanilla beans are Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian.
The three types of vanilla beans are Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian.

Since 1975, vanilla has been used figuratively to refer to something basic or lacking adornment. This use arises from the fact that this flavor has long been considered the standard and basic ice cream choice, among the many and varied flavors offered. The term "plain vanilla" has come to be used in business to describe a type of security that does not have special features.

Vanilla is a popular flavor of ice cream and other sweets.
Vanilla is a popular flavor of ice cream and other sweets.

Vanilla is the genus name of a group of tropical vines that are in the orchid family and grow in the Americas. The word comes from the Spanish vainilla and refers to the shape of the plants’ seedpods. The seedpods have been used for flavoring food for many years: in pre-Columbian times, Aztecs employed it in making chocolate. Today, the particular plant that is are used for commercial preparation is often Vanilla planifolia.

The three kinds of beans now available are Bourbon-Madagascar, Mexican, and Tahitian. Some products made from the Mexican beans have been found to contain coumarin, which is potentially toxic, so care should be taken when using products from this source.

It’s also important to be aware of the technical meaning of vanilla product names. "Natural" means that the product is made 100% from real vanilla. "Imitation" is entirely synthetic, and is primarily made from byproducts of the paper industry. "Vanilla flavored" has a combination of natural and synthetic ingredients, while artificial-flavored vanilla is also entirely synthetic.

Vanilla figures prominently in a chapter of Anne of Green Gables called “A New Departure in Flavorings” in which Anne makes a cake especially for the minister’s wife and unintentionally substitutes anodyne liniment — a salve for sprains and similar pains — for the intended ingredient. Needless to say, the cake doesn’t have the desired flavor, and the error is typical of Anne’s struggles.

Chocolate chip cookies made with vanilla.
Chocolate chip cookies made with vanilla.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I absolutely love vanilla perfume. I have some body lotion and shower gel that are vanilla scented, and I find the fragrance comforting and satisfying.

Some of my friends say that they couldn't wear it, because it makes them crave baked sweets. I understand that, but I think that is part of its allure.

Sometimes, just smelling like vanilla will satisfy my craving for a sugar cookie. It's weird, but it's true. If I get a steady supply of the scent to my nose, then I guess my body thinks it is getting fed!


I've heard the term “vanilla” used in reference to a person before. My dad thinks that my favorite singer is “too vanilla,” meaning that he doesn't hear anything special in his voice. I can't believe anyone could think he was boring, because I love the tone of his voice, but everyone has different tastes, and apparently my dad doesn't like vanilla!


@Oceana – To me, vanilla is like sugar in that respect. Both are very potent, and if you add too much of either ingredient, you will have ruined the whole batch of dough!

Though sugar doesn't have much of an aroma, it packs a powerful punch to your tongue. Too much of this makes cookies inedible, as does too much vanilla, which would make the cookies taste as if they were soaked in alcohol!


I prefer the flavor of pure vanilla extract to that of imitation vanilla. The real stuff is much more potent.

Have you ever noticed that it doesn't take much vanilla at all to flavor an entire batch of cookies? Most recipes only call for a teaspoon of the stuff.

If you've ever sniffed vanilla in the bottle, you know how powerful it is. The scent will shock you if you haven't smelled it before, because it is much stronger than that of most ingredients.


Here's a little trivia for you vanilla lovers: The largest producer of vanilla beans is Madagascar. Other countries that produce vanilla beans are Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, India, Tahiti, Hawaii and Belize.


@MrsWinslow - I haven't tried it myself, but you can sometimes find vanilla extract recipe kits at fancy health food/grocery stores. It's a "cute little glass jar" with the beans inside, but you have to split them yourself and supply your own liquor.

I didn't buy one because I didn't want to have to fool with the liquor, but it sounded neat. The jar was kind of expensive, but then, real vanilla at the grocery store isn't cheap, either! The jar I saw said the beans would last up to ten years! So it does sound like it would be cheaper.


I've read that you can make our own vanilla extract. Supposedly, you take whole vanilla beans, split them down the middle, and cover then with rum or vodka. You can then pour off the alcohol when you need vanilla and top it back off.

I mostly haven't tried it because I don't know where to buy vanilla beans and don't have a cute little glass jar to use. Has anyone tried this? Does it really work?


If you love vanilla and are looking to incorporate it into new recipes there are entire sites dedicated to this classic flavor. My personal favorite is to make homemade vanilla pudding for my family. All you need to create this is two cups of milk, a half a cup of white sugar, three tablespoons of cornstarch, a quarter teaspoon of salt, one teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon of butter.

Once you have everything toss the milk into a saucepan and heat until it bubbles a bit, but don't let it boil. Pour the sugar, cornstarch and salt into the milk and stir well. When it is at a nice consistency add the vanilla and butter. Stir until these are melted in.

Finally, pour your pudding into dishes and chill. It will taste amazing.


Vanilla is one of the more interesting additives that we can put in our food. It adds great taste and has some surprising health benefits as well.

Not only is vanilla a pretty good anti-oxidant but it has been shown to have some cancer fighting properties that are still undergoing research. In addition to this there are those that believe that vanilla may help out with offsetting some of the terrible problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Historically vanilla was used as an aphrodisiac, and even today many people still use the scent to attract partners. Go to any beauty shop and you'll find lots of vanilla scented products for just this reason.


it's possible to mix vanilla with syrup (6% vanilla )


Store vanilla beans in a clean jar that contains vanilla extract. The beans will retain their flavor and will not dry out.

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