NRC breaks new ground on identifying the sources of vanillin—vanilla's flavour booster

- Ottawa, Ontario

Did you know that vanilla, the world's favourite flavour extracted from vanilla pods, is one of the most-counterfeited essences?

The intoxicating scent and taste of vanilla enriches cupcakes, ice cream and coffee—even soaps, perfumes and medications. While real vanilla is a bean or pod harvested from a vanilla plant, chances are that in our everyday products, the main component giving vanilla that flavour boost (vanillin) does not come from vanilla at all. The majority of vanillin is produced from wood-pulp waste and petrochemicals, and very little comes from natural vanilla.

Vanilla plants grow in Madagascar and a few other small regions of the world. It takes some 500 vanilla beans to make a kilogram of vanillin. The production process involves manual labour and takes up to 8 months. As a result, the supply of vanilla-based vanillin trails far behind the demand, making it one of the world's most expensive flavours. These factors have encouraged the production of vanillin from a variety of other source materials such as rice, trees, sugar or even petrochemicals.

"Consumers are increasingly interested in where their food comes from, with a growing preference for natural food products over synthetic foods," says Dr. Michelle Chartrand, Research Council Officer, Inorganic Chemical Metrology group, National Research Council of Canada (NRC). "And foodies are willing to pay a premium price for naturally sourced vanillin."

Fighting counterfeit food

Determining the authenticity of foods is important in safeguarding the supply chain. Strict regulations govern how food can be produced and labelled, and what qualifies as a "natural" product. The large price differences in source materials also raise the spectre of fraudulent labelling practices. Under Canada's Food and Drug Regulations, vanilla extract must be processed from vanilla beans, and should not contain added colour.

Differentiating food products based on their point of origin is a complex task. It requires sophisticated instruments and highly trained analytical chemists as well as reference materials to calibrate measurements. The isotopic composition of vanillin source materials varies for many reasons. One way to distinguish among a variety of vanilla products is by measuring their isotopic composition using carbon isotope analysis, a powerful tool to identify vanillin source materials. This method requires isotopic reference materials, but there are few such food-based materials available.

The Inorganic Chemical Metrology group at the NRC carries out research in a top facility for measuring isotopes. Isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS), a method traditionally used for carbon isotope measurements, can measure the average isotopic composition of vanillin. Another technique, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), drills deeper into the vanillin molecule to provide the isotopic composition for each of its carbon atoms.

And that is why the 2 new vanillin certified reference materials (CRMs), named VANA-1 and VANB-1, can be valuable tools for food safety institutes such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, research programs and testing laboratories. "We believe that VANA-1 and VANB-1 are on track to being the first CRMs that are characterized not only for bulk carbon isotopic composition, but also for each of the 8 carbon atoms in vanillin," says Dr. Chartrand.

Collaborative science of developing CRMs

In collaboration with colleagues from the world-renowned CEISAM Institute at Nantes Université in France, the NRC's Metrology Research Centre has further developed and validated a state-of-the-art technique to perform precision carbon isotope measurements by NMR, led by Dr. Phuong Mai Le, a Research Council Officer in Inorganic Chemical Metrology at the NRC. "During this research project, we established a unique technology platform for isotopic profiling of the carbon atoms in organic molecules," says Dr. Le.

The collaborative aspect of this work also extends to the IRMS measurements. The NRC teamed up with world-renowned Canadian laboratories, the Ján Veizer Stable Isotope Laboratory at the University of Ottawa and the Geotop Stable Isotope Laboratory at the Université du Québec à Montréal, to ensure the high accuracy of the certified values for VANA-1 and VANB-1.

The work underpinning these new CRMs was recently published in 2 articles, one focused on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and the other on carbon isotope delta values. Both were featured on the respective covers of the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry.

For more details on VANA-1 and VANB-1 and other isotopic CRMs, visit the NRC digital repository.

Cover of Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry journal from October 2022 (in English only) with illustration of vanillin compound
Cover of Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry journal from November 2022 (in English only) with image of vanillin traceability pathway

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