Vanilla is statistically recognized as the yummiest flavor of ice cream: 29% of ice cream eaters place it as their first choice, followed by chocolate with only 8.9 percent1. The term “vanilla” is sometimes associated with a lack of flavor, something plain or ordinary. But nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is vanilla one of the most appreciated flavors, it also has many health benefits.
Vanilla has historically been used for medicinal purposes not only for the body but also for the mind. Earliest traces of vanilla date back to the 1300s in Mesoamerica, when vanilla was used, among other things, to give strength and vigor to the mind. Today, studies on rats show that the main component in vanilla, vanillin, is indeed an anti-depressant2. So the joy you feel when eating something flavored with vanilla isn’t just due to its delicious taste, but also to chemical processes in your brain.
Vanilla, much like many of the ingredients we have covered in this Healthy Ingredient Highlight series, is rich in antioxidants 3 . Antioxidants help your body deal with free radical damages, called oxidative stress. A free radical is an uncharged molecule (i.e. missing an electron), which means it can react and take an electron from other cells it comes into contact with. The cell missing an electron then struggles to fulfill its function. While the production of some free radicals by our bodies is normal, too many of them can cause lasting damages, such as favoring the development of cancer.
Luckily, vanilla is a great spice to eat to prevent you from developing a cancer 4. If a strand of DNA breaks, your body will usually be kind enough to take care of joining the strains together again in an orderly fashion for you. However, to err is human: if the DNA strands are not joined in an orderly fashion, they might mutate, which can then lead to cancer. DNA-PK is a protein that is often responsible for this problem. Studies have shown that vanillin is a DNA-PK inhibitor, lowering considerably the chances of the DNA strands mutating, and reducing, therefore, the likelihood of cancer developing itself.
A complex spice to cultivate, vanilla grows by vines, which take three to four years to mature. Once mature, they flower one day a year, during which farmers pollinate the plant by hand to make sure the pollination takes place during this very short window of time. It will then take nine months for the vanilla bean to mature to its perfect ripeness. In order to get the delicious taste we all love and know, the beans must then be blanched and dried for months.
Vanilla’s preciousness does not only come from the tedious process necessary to obtain it in the form in which we consume it. Indeed, its potential to keep your mind happy and your body healthy is priceless. With its rich flavor and health-boosting abilities, no wonder humans have taken the time to cultivate and hand pollinate vanilla plants for centuries. Nothing plain or ordinary about that, vanilla is truly an extraordinary spice!
Lisa Darmet is a freelance writer, whose passions include, not only eating, but also food and cooking and their connections to health, culture and society. She is a graduate of Hampshire College, Amherst, MA, USA with a specialty in “Cultivating Resiliency and Food Justice Through Community”. She is truly a citizen of the world and continues to explore cultures through world travel.