Vanillia pods and the vanillin structure

Vanilla is one of the most popular flavours of ice cream. In fact, the standard or plain flavour for most ice cream is indeed vanilla. However, the use of vanilla is in more than just ice-cream! Many other sweet foods such as cakes, custard, and chocolate contain vanilla. There are even soft drinks that contain vanilla to help give it a certain flavour. The molecule that makes this ever-present flavour is called vanillin, and we’re going to take you through the recipe.

Christmas Cake Chemistry - Bicarbonate of Soda
Just like these cupcakes from the December 2019 Molecule of the Month.

You’re So Vanilla

Being vanilla refers to something that is plain or ordinary, however, the molecule behind vanilla, vanillin, is anything but boring!

a vanilla ice cream cone

To assume that the use of vanilla is only to flavour food does not tell the true story. So, let’s look at when being vanilla is exciting!

An Old World Spice

Unsurprisingly, vanillin is responsible for the main flavour of vanilla. Vanilla itself is actually a type of spice that comes from a certain species of orchid. Yes, that’s right, orchids! The plants people talk about and pay a lot of money for is the natural source of vanilla.

vanilla pods

The vanilla orchid originates from central America, including parts of present-day Mexico. It was known, grown and used by indigenous tribes in this region for hundreds of years.

Nowadays, vanilla is grown worldwide, with over 7600 tonnes produced in 2020.

Vanillin For Everyone: Adults Or Kids

Vanillin was first isolated in 1858 by the French scientist Theodore Nicolas Gobley. It took another 16 years though, for German scientists Tiemann and Haarmann to determine the chemical structure of vanillin. These two went on to create the first industrial production of vanillin.

During the remainder of the 19th Century several more ways to synthesis vanillin became known about. Currently, most production of vanillin is synthetic, rather than extracted from the pod itself.

Vanillin Ring

The chemical structure of vanillin is below:

vanillin structure
vanillin structure

Vanillin contains four distinct chemical groups in its structure. In the middle sits benzene ring, made from six carbon atoms. Bonded to one of these carbons is a hydroxyl (-OH) group. The combination of benzene and a hydroxyl group makes vanillin a phenol. When you join lots of phenol groups together, we get exciting things – find out more about polyphenols.

Also bonded to one of the carbon atoms in the benzene is an aldehyde group. An aldehyde group consists of a carbon oxygen double bond (C = O) bonded to an hydrogen atom. The final group attached to one of the benzene carbon atoms is an ether group, formed from an oxygen atom attached to a methyl (-CH3) group.

Getting Familiar With Vanillin

Like many organic molecules, in its pure form vanillin appears as white crystals. Okay, so that bit is a little bit, well, vanilla. Vanillin is solid up to temperatures of 81°C at which point it melts.

The molecule is slightly soluble in water and very soluble in other solvents such as ethanol. Unsurprisingly, vanillin has a pleasant and sweet aroma.

Natural Extract

The exact process which produces vanillin in the vanilla orchid is still not certain. However, we do know that vanilla seed pods do not contain vanillin on its own. Instead, the molecule exists in a form known as β-D-glucoside. In this form, the vanillin bonds to a molecule of glucose. In order to produce vanillin on it’s own, we must remove this glucose.

Natural production of vanillin is a slow process. First, the vanilla pods are thrown into very hot water and are then left to bake in the sun during the day. At night, they are then wrapped up and left to sweat overnight.

Eventually, enzymes within the pods release vanillin in its isolated form. But even then, it can take another three months to full produce large amounts of the molecule.

Synthetic Routes To Sweetness

Unfortunately, the demand for the vanilla flavour is much, much greater than what natural production can provide. So, researchers have developed artificial ways to make vanillin.

The first synthesis of vanillin uses eugenol, a molecule found in clove oil. This process was in use from the 1870s through to the 1920s.

At present, vanillin is made from guaiacol, with the most popular process involving only two steps. This ensures there is enough vanillin to meet the demand!

Other methods including using a byproduct from the production of cellulose and even using modified microorganisms in a fermentation style process.

A Dash of Vanillin

The obvious use of vanillin is to flavour foods. Even more obvious is the use of vanillin to give foods a vanilla flavour. Who’d have guessed?

But maybe you didn’t know that vanillin has uses in perfumes and other fragrances. It’s sweet smell also makes it ideal to give nasty smelling product a much more pleasing scent.

While not a direct use, vanillin is also an important in the production of other chemicals such as drugs and cosmetics.

A Hidden Truth

Despite it’s widespread use, vanillin (and vanilla) can cause some health effects. Some people are sensitive to vanillin and can suffer migraines from eating it, while some people are allergic to it.

Be careful picking vanilla pods as the sap can react with the skin causing irritation and swelling.

However, most people suffer no effects, so unless you plan to eat lots and pure vanillin, you can enjoy a milkshake, ice cream or cream soda without any worries!


Vanillin may be famous as a flavouring, but there is much more to this molecule than a simple ice-cream flavour.

People have grown and used this spice for hundreds of years. The methods of producing it may have changed, but this spice is still widely in use today, with production exceeding thousands of tonnes.

This molecule has uses far beyond food and drink, and while ice-cream flavour perfume may not be coming to stores soon, vanillin may well be part of its composition.

Being vanilla may be plain, but being vanillin is far more exciting!


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