Vanilla is an essential ingredient in many sweet recipes. There’s vanilla ice cream, vanilla in sugar cookies, vanilla frosting, cakes, donuts, etc. There’s vanilla in so much of our food. Yet, it is a super expensive ingredient.
According to Food Business News, the trading price of vanilla was $250 per kilo in August of 2021. But you may think “it’s not that expensive to get vanilla extract from the store.” Getting pure, 100% vanilla extract is actually quite expensive. The vanilla extract that many people buy isn’t 100% vanilla but actually part alcohol.
In 2022, vanilla is priced to be around $400 per kg. That’s not even the highest the price for vanilla has ever been with 2018’s prices of about $600.
Vanilla is very expensive because of where it comes from. Most of our vanilla plants are grown in Madagascar. The past few years, Madagascar has been having terrible storms that have made it very difficult to grow vanilla beans.
Rise in Demand
The large increase of the price first occurred in 2015, when a gallon of vanilla shot up to be $70 (a gallon is much more expensive today.) This is in part because of the change and rise in demand. In 2015, vanilla companies wanted to make their products purer and use more actual vanilla in their products.
Of course, as more people go out to buy vanilla, especially when it was inexpensive, that makes the price climb up. Vanilla was super popular in 2015, making the price increase from the rise in demand.
What’s Been Happening in Madagascar?
Madagascar has been having crazy weather for quite a few years. The first major hit was the cyclone in 2017 that destroyed many crops. Vanilla takes 3 years to grow, so the damage that the plants sustained put vanilla production behind.
Since 2017, several other bad storms kept hitting Madagascar. This caused repeated damage to both the plants and the farmland. Each time the plants were getting reestablished, another storm would come and revert all the hard work.
Since most of the vanilla production happens in Madagascar, damage to the vanilla production line there causes a reduction of vanilla everywhere. Madagascar’s inability to produce vanilla beans from troubles with the weather has caused much of the price increase.
Has it Gotten Any Better There?
In 2019, it had seemed that vanilla production has become more stable. This jump have time has given plants the chance to regrow from the damages that they have sustained.
However… right as the vanilla plants were stabilizing and production was starting to increase, Covid-19 happened. Instead of damaging the plants, Covid hurt the people who were harvesting and shipping those plants.
Covid-19 in Madagascar harmed the production of vanilla which is what is keeping the price of vanilla high. Madagascar’s farming can’t catch a break.
Vanilla’s Growing Process Doesn’t Help
One of the main reasons that vanilla is primarily produced in Madagascar is because this plant is super hard to grow. The small amount of areas that are able to produce vanilla keeps the prices really high.
Vanilla comes from an orchid plant that takes around 3 years to mature. This is where the first difficulty comes in, orchids are hard to grow. Much of the time, they require hand pollination. On vanilla vines, the flowers bloom only one day a year, making the harvesting period very short.
Many farmers stay away from vanilla due to their extreme growing difficulty. There is a high risk of missing the harvesting day or having the plants fail to grow. There have been many cases of farmers giving up on vanilla. This is why most of the vanilla crops are still grown in only one country.
Processing Vanilla is Just as Difficult
Not only is the growing super difficult, but processing the vanilla is its own challenge. Vanilla beans must be cured and dried, a process that takes several months. You must be very patient and package them very well so they don’t get ruined by mold.
Mold can be a big issue when vanilla is grown in hot and tropical climates. A lot of moisture is in the area and non of it can be in the curing area.
With a mature plant, the growth to shipping process for a single plant can take up to a year. Vanilla is a time and labor-consuming plant that makes the price of it super high.
Did You Know…
Did you know that with the drastic price increase of vanilla, it is one of the most expensive spices next to saffron?
Vanilla in Mexico
Even though Madagascar is responsible for most of the vanilla production worldwide, Mexico also produces vanilla. The vanilla that we get from Mexico is notably cheaper than the vanilla we get from Madegascar.
One big reason for this price difference is that Mexico is a lot closer to the U.S. This means that the U.S. doesn’t have to spend as much on shipping compared to Madagascar. There isn’t an ocean that this vanilla doesn’t have to fly over.
However, food laws in Mexico are very relaxed. It is a lot easier to label vanilla extract as pure when there are additives due to the relaxed laws. While the lessened imported fees make the vanilla a lot cheaper, the fact that most of it are still artificial makes the prices cheaper as well.
Again, Mexican vanilla tends to still be very artificial. If you purchase vanilla extract from Mexico make sure to check the ingredients and make sure that it is 100% vanilla. There’s nothing wrong with artificial vanilla, but you should know what you are buying.
Why Can’t the United States Grow its Own Vanilla?
While it would make the prices a lot cheaper if the U.S. could produce its own vanilla. However, almost all of the United States can’t produce vanilla.
The vanilla plant requires a hot and humid climate in order to grow. The only place in the United States that has that climate is the very south of Florida. There is a small amount of vanilla that is grown there and agriculturists are working on ways to make it easier.
Florida is still pretty small and the state is already growing so many other crops. That makes Florida not a reliable source of vanilla beans at this time, especially since the plant is so hard to grow.
The reason why vanilla has gotten so expensive is because… it is a very difficult plant. From being super labor-intensive and time-consuming, vanilla is a difficult plant to grow even in perfect conditions. The weather disasters in Madagascar made production near stop, making prices rise to the sky.
Even when things started to look up for Madagascar, Covid-19 took the planet by storm and vanilla production got hurt once again.
As long as Madagascar doesn’t have any more weather disasters, vanilla production should rise once Covid-19 fades away from the country. At that point, we will see vanilla prices going down. This whole process may take a few more years though between the stubborn virus and giving vanilla plants time to grow.