Vanilla is so much more than an ice cream flavor or a popular scent for air fresheners. It can actually increase your brainpower. Before vanilla was known as a delicious addition to Bulletproof Coffee, healers used it for centuries as a powerful medicinal plant.
Packed with antioxidants, vanilla is still a coveted spice that is harder and harder to source for a reasonable price. This article covers the benefits of vanilla, how to choose a Bulletproof source, and what’s going on in the vanilla industry that’s making the good stuff so expensive. #vanillagate
Benefits of vanilla for your brain and body
The best-known medicinal use for vanilloids is to combat inflammation. (More on how these work in your body in a minute.) Think of how your skin gets swollen and red when you get a cut or a burn – the same biological mechanism can happen on your insides with exposure to stress, crappy food, mold, and other harmful chemicals.
Inflammation is bad for your body, but worse for your brain. The release of inflammatory cytokines contribute to brain fog, so it’s harder to focus, think clearly, or remember even the simplest tasks.
Vanillin promotes relaxation to calm the cytokine storm.
Other historical uses for vanilla:
- Calms stomach pains
- Reduces fever
- Relieves stress
- Reduces joint pain
- Helps with nausea or morning sickness
- May improve male impotence
How vanilloids work
Vanilloids are the active chemical compounds found in spices like vanilla, ginger, allspice, and cloves. So, yes, even though they’re called vanilloids, these chemical structures are found in other non-vanilla-tasting things. For instance, capsaicin, the compound that makes peppers hot, is a vanilloid.
Vanilloids like vanillin and capsaicin work by binding to receptors in your body and disrupting the pathway involved in pain.
Part of this pain-busting mechanisms is that vanilloids “use up” your body’s supply of a major pain signaling compound called substance P. High levels of substance P are correlated with arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other inflammatory diseases.
How to choose the best vanilla
I use vanilla almost every day, in either Bulletproof Coffee or whenever I have “Get Some” ice cream. It’s produced a noticeable improvement in my concentration and ability to handle stress. The caveat is in the quality.
I first started to research the cognitive effects of vanilla after noticing that some vanilla products made me feel great and some made me feel pretty slow. Turns out that quality can vary greatly and they’re pretty susceptible to mold toxins.
Here are some questions to ask to help you choose the best vanilla products out there.
- Where did it come from? An estimated 95% of “vanilla” products are not made with real vanilla. Instead, food manufacturers use artificial vanillin derived from a paper-pulp byproduct called lignin instead of actually vanilla pods. Not only that – in the U.S., castoreum, a …ahem … substance extracted from the anal glands of mature beavers is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a food additive. Often referred to as a “natural flavoring,” beaver juice is commonly used in food and beverages as vanilla and raspberry flavoring.
- Is there quality/mold testing in place? Vanilla is highly susceptible to mold. Because of the drying/curing process, less than perfect conditions result in sometimes microscopic mold toxins that can wreak havoc on your performance. Some people are more sensitive than others, but they’re certainly not good for anybody. A decent manufacturer will have stringent quality testing practices in place. Most of the time, you can just email the company and ask for copies of their reports or quality standards.
- How is it processed? Excess heat destroys the anti-inflammatory compounds in vanilla. Heating vanilla poses another problem – mold toxins. The compounds in vanilla that help improve cognitive performance also act as natural anti-fungal agents. When these compounds are destroyed, mold spores and fungi are able to grow on the dried beans during storage. If you eat the wrong kind of vanilla, it can actually cause more harm than good.
The best (and worst) sources of vanilla
- Mold-tested, non-GMO, processed below 180°, 100% ground Madagascar vanilla beans
- Mold-tested, non-GMO, processed below 180°, pure alcohol-based Madagascar vanilla extract
- Pure ground vanilla bean powder
- Vanilla bean extractives powder
- Pure alcohol-based vanilla extract (watch out for corn syrup and other additives)
- Vanilla paste (usually mixed with corn syrup and thickeners)
- Vanilla powder with additives such as maltodextrin from corn, silicon dioxide for anti-caking, cellulose (powdered wood) for bulk, or sugar in some form (evaporated cane juice, etc.)
- Imitation vanilla extract
- Vanilla flavor (beaver butt juice)
What about VanillaMax?
The high price of a quality vanilla bean is not totally new. Growth and harvesting of vanilla are labor-intensive, making it the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
But 2017 brought some new challenges to sourcing and manufacturing affordable vanilla.
- Extreme weather: In March of 2017, a tropical storm devastated Madagascar, affecting nearly half a million people and damaging about 30% of the island’s vanilla crop. Considering it takes about five years for the beans to mature and that Madagascar is the top producer of the world’s vanilla supply, this was a significant blow to the industry as a whole.
- Politics and market speculation: The market value of vanilla was an issue way before the storm. With big changes in climate and such a delicate crop, prices have nearly quadrupled from 2014 to 2017. This price increase is attracting all sorts of unsavory characters – thieves ripping vines out of the ground and organized crime rings bullying farmers out of their crop.
- Lower quality: In desperation, many growers are picking their pods before they mature and speeding up the aging/curing process, which reduces the quality of the beans. Even with a government crackdown on quality, it’s likely that most exports will consist of a lower quality product for the same crazy prices.
It’s possible that 2018 and beyond will produce a larger, higher-quality crop of vanilla that will reduce the price per ounce. But for now, it looks like some real-life 15th-century spice wars!
If you’ve followed Bulletproof for a while, you know about an awesome vanilla powder we add to Bulletproof Coffee and desserts. With such a limited worldwide supply of high-quality vanilla beans, we’ve decided to take VanillaMax off the market, with no plans to re-launch anytime soon. The price we’d have to charge would change radically and that’s not something we feel awesome about.
If you’re a fan of Bulletproof Collagen bars and bites, or a frequent visitor of the Bulletproof Cafes in Santa Monica, Los Angeles Arts District, and New York City, fear not! We’ll continue to use VanillaMax as an ingredient in our products and at the cafes. 🙂