Vanilla flavoring comes from the vanilla plant, a type of orchid that grows in tropical climates. Mexican vanilla, which many consider the most pure and flavorful version of vanilla, originates in southern Mexico and Central America and is the only type of vanilla plant that can be naturally pollinated. Mexican vanilla beans have a somewhat distinctive shape and produce a distinctive flavor as well.
The flowers of this plant bloom for only several hours before they wilt and die, but if they are pollinated while open, they will produce a number of long, thin vanilla beans. When these beans mature they are harvested, yet at this point they have no odor or flavor. In order to create the vanilla extract used in cooking and baking, the pods must first go though a long process of curing and fermenting, which can take over six months to complete.
There are a number of different types of vanilla beans, but the Mexican vanilla bean is considered exceptional because it is the original type of vanilla. All other vanilla plants in the world originate from this area. Vanilla plants in Mexico are unique because they are the only vanilla plants that can be naturally pollinated, a process that is needed if beans are to be produced. The flowers can only be pollinated by a specific variety of bee called Melipona bees. Vanilla flowers in other areas of the world must be pollinated by hand.
Although there are a variety of different types of vanilla, the two most popular varieties are Mexican vanilla and Madagascar vanilla. Although from the same species of plant, there are subtle flavor differences due to their method of pollination and to the climate differences between the two areas. While Madagascar beans produce a sweet taste, Mexican vanilla has a distinct rich and smooth favor. The beans themselves differ as well, as Madagascar beans are quite thin, while Mexican beans are a dark color and often thicker than the Madagascar beans.
Consumers should be wary of inauthentic Mexican vanilla. An artificial vanilla flavoring has been sold in Mexico that smells and tastes like vanilla but is actually an extract of the tonka plant. This plant contains a substance called coumarin that can cause a dangerous reaction in individuals taking blood thinners. If shopping for authentic Mexican vanilla while traveling, consumers should protect themselves by being wary of extreme bargains that may indicate artificial products and should make sure that the ingredients list vanilla bean and not tonka. Vanilla extract as well as other products containing coumarin are banned in the United States.