This is a podcast episode. Listen now.
You may have seen vanilla essential oil or even bought vanilla “essential oil,” but I’m sorry to tell you there is no such thing. Instead, authentic aromatherapy products are vanilla oleoresin, vanilla absolute, or vanilla CO2 extract.
Species: Vanilla planifolia/fragrans, Vanilla pompona/tahitensis
Common Name: Vanilla, Bourbon Vanilla, Tahitian Vanilla
Producers: Mexico, Madagascar, India and others
Main constituents: Vanillin, Hydroxybenzaldehyde Acetic Acid, and others
After saffron, vanilla is the second most expensive spice. It is a creeping vine that produces orchids and a fruit called the vanilla bean. Specific bees pollinate Mexican vanilla, but these bees are only in Mexico, so in other places vanilla must be hand-pollinated. This happens because the orchids only bloom one day a year. The blooming season lasts several weeks and new flowers open daily, but those flowers only last one day. If they’re not pollinated, the bloom will fall off. To keep a steady flow of a vanilla bean crop, farmers have to hand-pollinate.
The beans are picked when the tips are brown and the pod is turning yellow, and then they go through a 6 to 9 month month fermenting and curing process of heating, sweating, and drying. This process brings out the compounds.
Vanilla extracts come from the vanilla bean pod, but the pods do not release aromatic compounds very well, so they can’t be steam distilled or cold expressed. Instead, they must be extracted with solvents. So this is why vanilla essential oil doesn’t exist.
About Vanilla Extracts
What is an Oleoresin?
To talk about oleoresins, we must talk about resins. Plants can produce a few types of exudates, or metabolites that ooze out of the plant. These are:
- A resin – the sticky ooze coming out of usually trees and is basically oxidized essential oil. As it comes out of the bark, it hardens with air exposure.
- A gum – a high sugar ooze that plants make as internal tissue decomposes. The plant may create it to prevent a fungal infection, but it usually comes from wounds in the stems or branches
There 3 types of resin:
- Hard resin – has very little essential oil and is used to make varnishes and adhesives
- Gum resin – which is a semi-solid mixture of gum and resin, and also contains essential oil. Usually, you tap a tree to collect this.
- Oleoresins – this is a semi-soft, mostly liquid mixture that contains resins and high amounts of essential oils. If you hear the term balsam, as in an elemi balsam or copaiba balsam, these are oleoresins.
Oleoresins are naturally occurring and usually come from trees. These are sometimes called tears, which remain suspended until they’re released by extraction. Depending on the plant, some resins and oleoresins can be steam distilled and some must be extracted with either a hydrocarbon solvent like hexane or with an alcohol solvent like ethanol.
With vanilla, the oleoresin is in the vanilla pod. Inside the pod are hundreds of beans that make up a kind of vanilla bean paste. Sometimes we remove the paste and just soak the pod, sometimes we use intact pods
Vanilla is not water-soluble so it can’t be distilled. Instead, the beans soak in an alcohol solvent to pull out the compounds. This process is called maceration, which is what produces the vanilla extract for baking.
But where the vanilla extract process ends here with removing beans and clarifying, for the oleoresin, the next step is to remove the alcohol. What you end up with are the aromatic compounds.
Typically, oleoresins don’t emulsify in carrier oils. They will actually dilute, but you may need to shake them up because settling will occur.
Getting an absolute also involves solvents, but this process differs from an oleoresin.
For an absolute, we start with a hydrocarbon solvent, which will most often be hexane. Add the vanilla beans to a drum, shake them up, and then add hexane and low heat. After a time, remove the solvent. This creates a thick, waxy substance called a resinoid or concrete, which must be treated with alcohol to separate the compounds. Next, filter out the waxy substance and the alcohol and the final product is an absolute.
This isn’t an essential oil, but is really a concentrated type of plant material. Some of the solvent will always remain in the end product.
A vanilla CO2 extract comes from the beans extracted with supercritical carbon dioxide. At pressure, CO2 has the density of liquid, but it’s neither liquid or gas, and acts as a solvent at the the supercritical stage.
Technically, a CO2 extract is really an absolute. Once you bring the pressure back down, it turns back to gas and dissipates, so the end product can potentially be clean. It’s fast and gentle and can capture a lot that steam distillation can’t, so many people like it.
Lower pressure products are more like essential oils whereas higher pressure products contain more plant material and different types of compounds and can be waxier. These are much less like essential oils.
Technically, a CO2 extract is– well, an extract. Not an essential oil. Technically, an oleoresin is also an absolute because it uses solvent extraction. Some people use the terms oleoresin and absolute interchangeably, but the way I understand it, is that an absolute uses a
One of the most important things to know about vanilla oils is the solvents. You must use a form of alcohol to extract the constituents, but it’s important to know the type. Most of the time it will be an ethanol, but sometimes it might be propylene glycol, especially for non-food products.
You can get ethanol by chemically producing it from petrochemicals, or you can biologically produce it by fermenting sugars and starches with yeast. Like beet sugar and grain or corn starch, for example. Most ethanol comes from plant sources, but it’s wise to check.
You may also find other vanilla products. Some may be authentic products and some may be purely synthetic.
Vanilla tincture is just vanilla extract you bake with. Plants soaked in alcohol or glycerol are called tinctures. The difference may be the strength or the ratio of vanilla to alcohol, but the are the same thing.
Vanilla bean oil is vanilla beans infused in fatty vegetable oils. You might use this as a massage oil, for example.
Vanilla fragrance oil is not an aromatherapy product. This is a synthetic product from a lab and does not come from a vanilla plant.
Artificial vanilla or vanilla flavouring is not authentic vanilla extract, is not from vanilla beans, and certainly is not an aromatherapy product. This is ethyl or methyl vanillin labelled as artificial vanilla that most people bake with.
Benefits of Vanilla Oleoresin, Absolute, or CO2 Extract
Vanilla oleoresin and CO2 is high in vanillin. This is the main constituent that gives it that signature vanilla smell. This constituent has some medicinal benefits. Most of the information is around vanillin, and a lot of it is in animal research, which means we don’t know much yet about how it works in human health.
However, what we do see is that It’s antimicrobial, as well as neuro-protective. Animal data shows vanilla has antidepressant activity, which is thought to occur through interaction with opioid receptors and antioxidant activity. Vanillin also has anxiolytic-activity, which means it’s anti-anxiety.
Mostly, for human application, it means it will be calming, and may potentially help combat mood disorders, stress-related conditions, nervousness, nervous tension, insomnia, restlessness.
It can cross into your blood brain barrier and interact with opioid, serotonin, acetylcholine, and GABA receptors, which may positively affect important neurochemicals needed for mood, neuroprotection and proper brain function.
Vanilla Oleoresin Safety
There are no known contraindications or safety considerations with vanilla except for the usual dilution recommendations. However, it is not irritating to the skin.
Vanilla is notorious for synthetic adulteration or being purely synthetic. Before companies get to that bottling stage of vanilla oleoresin or vanilla absolute etc, they may add some synthetic ethyl or methyl vanillin. It will bring out that vanilla smell and make it cheaper to produce. But authentic vanilla doesn’t have that super sweet smell that you think vanilla candles and vanilla in cookies smells like. It’s actually subtle and earthy.
Vanilla is very expensive and that’s literally why you find artificial vanilla flavour on the shelf instead of authentic organic vanilla extract.
So next time you’re on the search for vanilla, be intentional about where you buy. You want to look for sustainable growing, harvesting and distilling practices, fair-trade business, organic vanilla and ethanol, and you want to verify the type of solvents.