Tuesday, December 06, 2005

For The Love of Vanilla

This is a re-do of a blog I posted last summer that raised the hackles of a particular company as I implicated the company without checking for the veracity of my comments. The issue remains the same. Many large frozen dessert manufacturers are not using pure vanilla despite the price collapse. This has left thousands of farmers with tons of vanilla they can't sell. As the prices drop lower and lower, farmers have fewer incentives for growing vanilla, and it could be lost. Read on for more about the new vanilla crisis.


The holiday season is here and most of us are stocking up on ingredients to make our celebratory meals. Vanilla is certainly a must have for anyone who bakes, as our cakes and cookies, eggnog and ice creams would taste very different without its delicate yet all-important flavor. We can count on finding it in the grocery, in specialty foods stores, and even in the discount markets, reliable, ready and oh, so delicious!

Now imagine for a moment that you go to the store to buy your baking ingredients and there is no vanilla on the shelf. In fact, the only ingredient available is imitation vanilla. So you go to a second store and a third. No pure vanilla. You look online. No pure vanilla.

This isn’t a fantasy, unfortunately, as it could actually happen to us in the next few years. At this moment, less than one percent of all the vanilla flavored and scented products in the world contain pure vanilla. We are currently balanced on the threshold of losing pure vanilla forever!

Those of you who use vanilla regularly are well aware that the prices of pure vanilla have been unusually pricey during the last several years. Most likely you’ve even grumbled about it. For those of you who didn’t know about why the prices were so high, between 1999 and late 2004 there was a world shortage of vanilla. Initially driven by such low prices that the farmers tore up their vanilla, the shortage was fueled by weather-related disasters and political unrest. The shortage created a crisis and prices escalated to unprecedented levels. Although there is now an abundance of vanilla in the market as farmers throughout the tropics planted vanilla, we are faced with a crisis of even greater proportions. Why? Because the big corporations have switched to a new generation of synthetic vanilla!

Most of us don’t know a whole lot about the flavors and spices we use on a regular basis, and vanilla is no exception. For instance, did you know that vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world? Did you know that vanilla is grown only in developing countries as a commercial venture because there is a ready supply of workers willing to produce vanilla for a fraction of the cost of growing it here? Are you aware that even though there no longer is a shortage of vanilla, many of the ice cream and frozen dessert manufacturers, the companies who use the most vanilla in the world, are still using “flavor identical alternatives,” the euphemistic term for synthetic vanilla? Finally, are you aware that you are paying the same price for these desserts as when they contained pure vanilla?

This current crisis could spell the end of pure vanilla. If large corporations that have used pure vanilla in their formulas in the past don’t switch back to pure vanilla, people will grow accustomed to the flavor of imitation vanilla. The prices for vanilla will fall so far below the cost of production that the farmers will have no incentive to grow it. And since the majority of people won’t recognize the difference between the flavor and fragrance of imitation and pure vanilla, vanilla could go the way of so many other valuable rain forest plants, animals and birds.

There are specific regulations for producing ice creams and other frozen desserts that were established by the FDA in the 1960s to regulate an industry that had no specific rules or controls either for product quality or the inclusion of ingredients. Active legislation ensued and now vanilla extract is the only flavoring with both an FDA Standard of Identity of its own and an FDA ice cream standard.

In order to be labeled vanilla ice cream or pure vanilla ice cream, the product must be made with 100 percent pure vanilla. It can be made with vanilla extract or vanilla beans. Usually pure vanilla ice cream is made with top-quality ingredients, as the pure vanilla will not mask any “off” flavor or fragrance notes. “Super-premium” and “premium” ice creams usually have a high butter-fat content, so double-strength pure vanilla extract is most often used. At least, this was true until recently. (Detailed information on the FDA regulations and Standard of Identity can be found in Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World’s Favorite Flavor and Fragrance, written by Patricia Rain: www.vanilla.com.)

If you look at the ingredients on a container of many vanilla or “vanilla bean” ice creams in the US, you will notice that it says, “natural flavor” on the package. While this may not sound suspicious, “natural flavor” actually means vanillin made from plant substances such as beets and paper pulp (conifers contain vanillin, which is why Ponderosa pines smell somewhat vanilla-like). In fact, many premium ice creams contain no pure vanilla at all. It is flavored with chemical vanillin and has flecks of flavorless “exhausted” vanilla beans (left over from the extraction process) added for appearance. For this, we’re paying a premium price.

How does this affect us?
Not using pure vanilla in premium products is in defiance of the FDA Standards of Identity. Both the ice cream companies and the companies that produce and sell large quantities of synthetic vanillin would very much like the Standards of Identity to be revised in their favor. There is now a proposal to the FDA to allow vanilla flavor from sources other than pure vanilla to be used and still sold as premium vanilla ice cream.

At this time, tons of vanilla, worldwide, are going unsold. Why? Because there isn’t a market for the beans. Historically, the frozen dessert industry has been the largest buyer of vanilla. Because they are now using synthetics, the pure vanilla is sitting in warehouses around the world.

In 1998, 2300 metric tons of vanilla beans were used worldwide. In 2004, it was 1200 tons and dropping! Farmers who have not been able to sell their vanilla will be forced to change to another agricultural crop, which often means tearing out their vanilla plants. Crises such as this often leads farmers to immigrate to industrialized countries in search of work. This is a crisis of major proportions for the tropical growers of vanilla.

What you can do
The most effective thing we all can do is to create a populist movement to get pure vanilla back into ice cream, frozen yogurt and other vanilla-flavored products we buy regularly. Call or write the company whose products you normally use and ask if they use pure vanilla extract or flavor in their products. If they don’t, let them know that you want products with pure vanilla.

We can bring about change, but we need to act now. Tell everyone you know to support pure vanilla. Call your favorite talk radio station and bring up this topic. If you know people in the media, ask them to write an article about the vanilla crisis. Even if you don’t buy commercial ice creams, yogurts or other dairy products, this is an issue of critical importance to the growers and to all of us who want vanilla to be available in the years to come. Large corporations need to know that they are being watched and that we want them held accountable.

Please purchase vanilla products that have been bought at fair prices whenever possible. Vanilla is not part of the Fair Trade movement as it is a very small industry compared with tropical commodities such as coffee, chocolate, sugar and bananas. As a result, you will need to ask vendors how they buy their vanilla. The Vanilla.COMpany, located at www.vanilla.com buys their vanilla beans and extracts at Fair Trade prices. Wholesale and retail purchases from this company help to fund grass-roots projects for vanilla growers and their families worldwide. For more information about this, contact Patricia Rain at rain@vanilla.com.

We are no longer isolated from one another in the world. We are a global community and we need to think and live as a community. Every choice we make, every action we take, can affect people around the world. This is especially true regarding the choices we make in the foods we purchase and consume every day.

Vanilla is a rain forest orchid whose fruit, the vanilla pod (bean) contains medicinal value that is just now being discovered and researched. It has value in aromatherapy. It is a key component in many perfumes. And it is a luscious substance that flavors the foods we love. Please join in the movement to keep pure vanilla alive and available. Bring vanilla out of your cupboard and put it with the other condiments you use daily. Vanilla is a magical ingredient; in fact, it’s world’s favorite flavor and fragrance. Support the growers who bring us this remarkable product: Help us to save pure vanilla!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Beginning A New Adventure

November 8, 2005

I was interviewed this last weekend by the African correspondent for the Baltimore Sun. Scott Calvert, the correspondent, had just returned from a trip to Madagascar and learned from the locals in the vanilla industry there, including some farmers, that they feared that vanilla may be drawing to a close as a way to support themselves. As the prices for vanilla have collapsed, growers worldwide wonder what will happen next. How low will the prices go, and is there a possibility that the prices will ever go up again, even if not as high as they were between 2000 and 2004appen next. How low will the prices go, and is there a possibility that the prices will ever go up again, even if not as high as they were between 2000 and 2004.

The farmers have reason for concern, and we should as well. The reality is that the new generation of synthetics made from plant sources (beets, wood pulp, and other sources) offer cheap substitutes for vanilla. Frozen dessert manufacturers changed their formulas during the period where vanilla’s prices were so high, and they haven’t had much incentive to switch back. The rationale, I’m sure, is to save a few pennies on vanilla, especially as the cost of butter and cream has increased, and the sharp rise in gasoline costs has affected the prices of most products.

There are a number of reasons for concern: Will consumers become accustomed to the flavor of the imitation vanilla and not recognize pure vanilla when they taste it? Will farmers give up when the prices go too low, tear up their crops and either plant something else or immigrate to other countries in search of work? And, even though there is a demand in the gourmet-foods, natural foods and food service niche markets, will this provide enough demand for vanilla that farmers can still eke out a living growing vanilla?

From my point of view, the current situation is very troubling. Vanilla is a rain forest plant, though very little vanilla is now actually grown in rain forests. Nevertheless, like many other plants from the forest, it has proven medicinal value. Could we lose a plant that might have great value in cancer treatment or DNA repair? We have already lost many, many rain forest plants that could well have contained useful medicinal components.

The flavor of pure vanilla is unique and no flavor scientist has been able to come close to replicating it. This, after continuous attempts by flavorists and scientists for more than a hundred years.

The livelihoods of thousands of farmers would be endangered with the loss of vanilla, and their families would suffer the consequences of increased poverty, compromised educational opportunities, and the likelihood of having their families split apart as the head (or heads) of household move to another country in search of work. This last is not uncommon as children are placed with relatives while both parents, frequently with limited skills for working in industrialized countries, attempt to cross borders illegally in search of a way to support themselves and their families back home.

It’s so easy for us to forget how each choice we make, each action we take, can have a ripple effect that reaches far beyond our immediate lives. Our planet is so small now; we can have a positive or negative effect on people we have never met who live thousands of miles away. For the love of my family and the desire for a healthier planet for my grandsons and the children of the future, I feel very strongly about keeping vanilla a viable, healthy crop. I would like to see Fair Trade prices for vanilla, not as an exception, but as a rule. It’s the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world and yet the farmer’s make only a few pennies on each dollar created through the sale of vanilla.

If you want to know more about what you can do to help save pure vanilla, attend one of my lectures. Better yet, create an event where I can come to speak, show my slide show of the faces and places of vanilla, do a special taste testing of vanilla or a meal based around vanilla and educate people about the importance of saving pure vanilla. Together we can make a difference.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

In Santa Fe, New Mexico

September 18, 2005

It has been a while since I’ve had the opportunity to update this blog, which has been frustrating, especially as my intention was to keep readers current with what’s new in our business, issues relating to vanilla and other tropical commodities, and more. We are currently developing new products for the holidays, creating a brochure and a new homepage for the website, among other things. It has been a matter of priorities and which project screamed loudest for my attention. Now I have a few quiet moments before returning home to the busy-ness of daily life.

I am writing this in Santa Fe, New Mexico where I have just completed a program called, “Real Speaking,” facilitated by Gail Larsen, an exceptionally skilled speaker and, for several years, the President of the National Speaker’s Association. One of our coaches at the Women Leaders for the World cohort, Joanne Brem, strongly suggested that I work with Gail as she is brilliant in assisting people in identifying their core message and the best ways for engaging our authentic voices. If you are interested in working with Gail, visit www.realspeaking.com. If you sign up, please mention that I referred you.

This is my first visit to Santa Fe, though I’ve wanted to come here for many years, not only because I knew I would feel a kinship with the people who live here, but because my cousin Thom and his wife, Judith, live in El Rito, in the high desert mesa outside of town. Judith is currently in Atlanta directing a play, so Thom took me on a tour of the region, first to Taos Pueblo following the back roads along the Rio Grande Gorge, and the next day into Georgia O’Keefe’s country in Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. We completed our tour by visiting Chimayo, known for the miracles that have occurred in the Chimayo sanctuary. The monsoon season has just ended and the countryside and washes are filled with chamisa, sunflowers, asters, mullen and blooming plants, and the pinon pine cones are filled with their delicious seeds. It feels so familiar because of the years of seeing pictures in magazines and movies made in New Mexico, and it is truly beautiful. The sky is saturated with blues and with a multitude of colors so intensely bright at sunrise and sunset that it appears as if it has been painted with acrylics by the Great Creator.

Right now, the sky near my cousin’s home is filled with thick, choking smoke and the roar of flames devouring the Pinon, the firs, the junipers and cypress. Eight firefighters were in his driveway earlier this evening, eating rations and waiting for bulldozers to cut a fireline. We had planned to connect this afternoon to share a meal after the training ended. Instead, this morning Thom called to say that a fire had broken out and that while it appeared to be under control, he’d get back to me a little later as to whether he’d been down this evening or tomorrow morning.

When I left the Bobcat Inn this afternoon, I saw a huge pall of smoke drifting across the mesa. I wasn’t able to reach Thom until this evening. Apparently the fire exploded this afternoon around 2:30 and raced up the ridge behind him, surrounding the region. His car was ready to roll with the dog and cats inside, and his truck was loaded with their most beloved possessions. I am writing while I wait for his arrival with the animals; the truck has been moved to the home of friends who live a safe distance from the fire...at least for the moment. There are two fires that have merged into 2000 acres of burning or blackened mesa, and the fire is has zero containment. It appears that I am getting the full Santa Fe experience.

A Post Script: The fire was contained and my cousin did not lose their hom.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Women Leaders for the World.

No, I haven't been absent from blog writing after retracting my statements about Haagen Dazs because of embarrassment. On the contrary, I have invited Haagen Dazs to use me as their spokesperson. They haven't yet responded....

I've been absent because of the extraordinary opportunity to participate in the first ever twelve day residency program at Santa Clara University, Women Leaders For The World (WLW). Women from diverse places have come to participate -- Uganda, Uzbekistan, Mexico, Indonesia, South Africa, and the United States. Each participant came with a vision or to create a vision in a supportive environment, with the goal of making the world a better place. While many of the visions are focused on women or women and children, ultimately, each involves everyone, and empowers all to have a better life. Challenges women in developing countries face, and specifically Uzbekistan, are nearly unimaginable to those of us who live in more democratic environments. Their courage and determination is moving.

Initially my intention was to work on the International Tropical Farmers Network, still in its nascent state, but garnering a lot of enthusiasm with our core group. However, I realized that in order to focus time on the network it was first necessary for me to focus on growing our core business. By creating a very profitable business we can implement more of the projects that we hold dear and important to us.

I have set a goal to have our vanilla sugar into Starbucks by October. Rather than feeling daunted, I feel determined. While I certainly see this as doable, if for any reason Starbucks decides it isn't the right product for them (though I can't imagine why they wouldn't want it!), there are many other avenues we can explore.

We are also interested to get our products into more specialty food and natural food stores such as Whole Foods, as well as to provide our premium extracts and beans to more restaurants, ice cream stores and bakeries. If you who read my blog will point us in the direction of your favorite places to eat, small-to-mid-size ice cream producers, or bakeries, we'll be sure to follow your suggestions.

On Friday we visited Google in Mountain View. What an amazing place!! We were all impressed with their vision, their goals, their eco-friendly environment and beautiful facility. It was a community in the truest sense of the world. They even provide their employees with their meals for free! Well, yes, I do that too, but only for four, not for thousands. They have great desserts -- maybe they'll be our next big account.

The women and men who are facilitating the WLW cohort have impressive credentials and a strong presence in the business and academic communities. Our classes are varied, with some segments focused on leadership and vision, and others on ethics, cultural diversity, etc. For instance, Saturday was devoted to understanding cultural differences as a way to better interact within our global community.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools has been to understand how the lenses through which we view our lives impact ourselves as well as our way of doing business or running organizations, or even relating to our friends and family. I went to the conference knowing that I would learn a lot but I had not known that the experience would be transformational. I look forward putting into motion what I have learned. Watch out world, I have big plans! I will write more about the WLW after we have completed the cohort.

On a sadder note, on July 20th my oncologist, Richard Shapiro, died quite suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 41 years old and had no history of heart disease. It has been a huge shock for his family, friends, patients, and for the community at large. He was funny, irreverent, compassionate and gave us a sense of hope. We all were his favorite patient. I feel blessed to have had him in my life and sad to let go of an extraordinary human being.

Friday, July 01, 2005


On June 24th I posted an article in this blog about Saving Pure Vanilla. I expressed concern that many premium ice cream manufacturers (and I specifically mentioned Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ice cream) do not contain pure vanilla extract or flavor in their ice cream. I was also concerned about how ingredients are represented on the packaging. I requested that people write to Nestle Corporation asking that they comply with the FDA Standard of Identity and to put pure vanilla extract in their premium ice creams.

When I wrote these statements in my newsletter and web log, I honestly (but unfortunately) was not considering that this could possibly be harmful to the reputation of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc., to Nestle, or to Haagen-Dazs. It was based on information I received from a meeting at the Flavor and Extract Manufacturer’s Association (FEMA) and from the labeling I read on the Haagen-Dazs ice cream package. It was also based on my interpretation of the FDA Standard of Identity for premium vanilla ice creams. And finally, it included my concern about the vanilla producers worldwide and my interest in seeing increased use of pure vanilla in premium products.

On June 30th I received a letter from Mark LeHockey, Vice President and Counsel of Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc. Mr. Le Hockey writes:

“First and foremost your statement that Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ice cream contains synthetic vanillin is completely false. Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean contains only pure vanilla extract, supplied to Dreyer’s by one of the most reputable ingredients suppliers in this country. For the same reason, your statement that “Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ice cream contains ‘no vanilla at all’ is false.

“From there, it unfortunately only gets worse. Based upon your misstatement that Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean contains no vanilla at all, your further assertions that Dreyer’s or Nestle are defying FDA regulations, using ‘fraudulent packaging, which is illegal’, and for the past few years ‘they’ve ignored the law’, are both false and presumptively malicious based upon the actual facts and your failure to ascertain the true facts before making such scurrilous charges.

“In fact, in addition to using only pure vanilla extract in its Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ice cream, Dreyer’s has spent and continues to spend millions upon millions of dollars ensuring the highest quality of Haagen-Dazs ingredients and communicating those benefits to our customers. In this connection, the false statements and accusations contained in the June 24th web site do severe damage to our work and the reputation and goodwill of one of the most valuable brands in this country. Each passing day that these false statements and claims remain posted only exacerbates the problem.”

As a journalist, I attempt to report accurate information to readers. In fact, I did not contact Dreyer’s or Nestle in advance of publishing information on my web log or in the newsletter. I placed a call to Mr. Mark LeHockey on July 1st, but as I have not heard back from him, I can neither confirm nor deny that Haagen-Dazs ice cream contains pure vanilla extract. As a result, I will assume that Mr. LeHockey’s claim is accurate. I respectfully apologize for misinformation I may have provided regarding Haagen-Dazs premium ice cream and for any fraudulent or false statements I have made. I have removed the web log statements and am contacting all newsletter subscribers to apologize for inaccurate or misleading information.

As those of you who read my blog are fans of pure vanilla, I encourage you to enjoy premium ice creams containing pure vanilla and to continue to support vanilla producers by purchasing and using pure vanilla products.

Patricia Rain,
Vanilla Queen

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Out on the Road

From May 31st to June 4th I was "on the road," though not far away -- just the East San Francisco Bay Area. Even ninety miles away is fun, however, as so much of my time is spent in front of the computer in Santa Cruz, so I feel as if it's a holiday when I'm doing book events. The best part of this trip was that I stayed with my daughter and son-in-law and my "job" was to entertain (and be entertained by)my grandson, Theo. He and I are so fond of one another that we play from the moment he wakens until he goes to bed, and it's always difficult to leave at the end of the visit.

Theo is just turning 16 months and he's determined to talk. He went to a birthday party while I did my event at Black Oak Books, and was served a cupcake. He doesn't get a lot of sugar, and so he was thrilled with that sweet taste that's a natural pleasure for us humans. His dad reported that he said, "Ummmm. Oh wow! oh, ummmm, wow, oh MAN!" Clearly he takes after his grandmother who has a full set of sweet teeth!

I did a reading and slide show in Berkeley Tuesday evening at Black Oak Books, and after, attendees were treated to an amazing dessert selection by Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse prepared two-bite sized eclairs filled with Chantilly cream and decorated with caramelized spun sugar, cat's tongues (a thin vanilla wafer cookie), and a remarkable tapioca pudding with a tiny scoop of a fantastic ice cream. I was so busy answering questions that I don't remember what the ice cream was flavored with, but it was all extraordinary. Vintage Berkeley Wines poured a delicious Moscato dessert wine.

As you can see, I don't do a standard book event. First I read some of the "wow" details about vanilla from the Introduction, and then begin a slide show that features the cycle of vanilla and the faces and places where it's grown. I always have an interactive table set up with our extracts and beans so that people can see and sniff for themselves the differences between vanilla of various origins. They can also taste our vanilla sugar, smell a bag filled with vanilla beans (a heady aroma, to be sure!) and enjoy a picture book with additional pictures.

The following day I taped a radio show for KCRW Los Angeles (an NPR station)from KQED in San Francisco, then enjoyed lunch right on the Bay with an old friend who is both interesting and extremely creative, a perfect companion to share a meal with. On the 4th I spent the afternoon at The Pasta Shop in Berkeley. The Pasta Shop event was a culinary extravaganza. They had three tasting dishes of Creme Anglaise (a thin pouring custard) flavored with the varieties of vanilla I carry (Madagascar, Tahitian, and Mexican),as well as carry-out containers of the custard, and a sampling of the Smoked Turkey, Cranberry, Cous-Cous Salad with Vanilla Vinaigrette from The Vanilla Chef along with carry-out containers of the salad. They also sell an impressive variety of pre-made foods, including salads, sandwiches, and hot foods, and gorgeous desserts, meats, freshly made pasta, breads, cheeses, and hard to find cooking ingredients. I was in heaven! Even better, there are several streets filled with small shops so it can be an afternoon outing to visit 4th Street in Berkeley. I discovered Tacubaya, a Mexican restaurant next to The Pasta Shop, and found they carry fresh masa. Since returning home, I've been eating fresh tortillas for lunch. Regretably, I don't have the technique down well, but even though they look like lopsided pancakes, they taste like Southern Mexico, and that's what really matters!

I signed books, visited with customers, and had my larger traveling display set up with samples of vanilla from around the world. Store manager, Porsche, a trained chef, answered questions about the many different items I've collected in my travels. More than just vanilla beans, there are woven containers for holding vanilla from Tahiti's Central Market, woven vanilla bean ornaments from Madagascar and Mexico, a clock made from a coconut and decorated with vanilla beans, coffee beans, and banana fiber from Bali, money embossed with vanilla beans from around the world, and even a display of the most commonly purchased synthetics from Mexico and the Caribbean. It's a true hands-on vanilla experience. And the best part is that people purchased not one but THREE bottles of extract, the foods, and the books. This is wonderful to see in the summertime when most people don't think about baking. My dream is to have everyone use vanilla year 'round (ideally, daily), putting it in summertime salads, lemonade and other beverages, in rubs and sauces for grilled meats and seafood, and in delicious ice creams and fruit desserts.

I'm back in Santa Cruz for a while though I may be off to Mexico with Alton Brown of Food Networks "Good Eats," in July or August. This is the hottest time of year in Mexico but it will still be great to "return home." I haven't been to Mexico in three years and I'm really homesick for the delicious small, thick tortillas, black beans and the culinary specialties of Veracruz, as well as to see my "family" of friends whom I love dearly.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Vanilla/Mosquito Connection

Last year I received a phone call from a popular call-in talk radio station asking if imitation vanilla would repel mosquitoes. Word was out that wearing the vanilla would protect you from being bitten. I also received several e-mails from people, and one man in Canada actually considered creating a mosquito repellent with a vanilla aroma.

At the time I was busy completing the history book and I didn't get around to testing the theory. I know that spiders aren't wild about vanilla and that you can put a vanilla bean in furniture polish to keep them off the furniture (at least until the aroma wears off), so it seemed reasonable to me that mosquitoes might not like vanilla either.

This year I decided I should try the vanilla approach to combatting flying insects. I live next to a lake and it is full-on mosquito season here. West Nile Virus has shown up in the area and health officials anticipate a real problem, so the time was right use myself as a guinea pig. I bought some imitation vanilla at the grocery store and put it on the left side of my face, neck, and left arm. On the right side of my face, neck and right arm I put pure vanilla extract.

The first thing I noticed is that the pure vanilla smelled better on my skin than the imitation. I also found that the aroma seemed to fade fairly quickly, at least to my human nose. Undaunted, I went out into my garden to work. It was late afternoon and the mosquitoes were definitely coming out in force.

The results? Two bites on the left side of my body; two bites on the right! Now, I probably should have had more bites given the number of mosquitoes buzzing around me, but one bite is one too many if the mosquito is carrying a virus. So, chalk up the buzz to another urban legend!

One thing that DOES work is citrus peel. I was out in the fields alongside a river in Mexico several years ago. The mosquitoes were everywhere and all I could think of was malaria or dengue fever. However, we were walking through Mandarin (tangerine) trees, so we picked some Mandarins and I introduced my Mexican friends to the joys of smelling like a Mandarin. I rubbed the fragrant inside of the peel over my face, neck, arms, and hands, and they followed suit. The result kept us from being "eaten alive."

I spoke with the local company that is working on mosquito abatement using natural methods rather than spray. The director said that the most effective mosquito protection continues to be DEET. Although Deet's producer says that it's safe even for small children, it can lift paint off of things, so it can't be perfect. He said that there is a product called Picindirin (or something close to that) that's a little less invasive and there should be a new lemon eucalyptus product coming out next year. Finally, there is a product called "Off." If you have any additional ideas, please let me know and I'll post them.

The moral of the story is that while vanilla may be able to help with cancer prevention it doesn't make it with mosquitoes!

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Power Foods

After receiving the information about vanilla as an anti-mutagenic and that it can repair DNA strand, I've thought a lot about how we can incorporate more vanilla into our diets as yet another healthy food to use in cancer prevention. As many of you know, I was diagnosed 15 months ago with advanced breast cancer, and I'm now cancer-free. Was it the vanilla? Who knows. All I know is that I'm currently fine and I'm working hard to stay well. And...I'm certainly incorporating vanilla and herbs and spices into lots of what I call "power" foods, foods known to be high in vitamins, minerals, phyto-chemicals or amino acids.

Here are some examples: White tea -- especially silver-needle white tea -- is extremely high in antioxidants and quite mild in flavor. Further, you can brew the leaves from white tea several times and still get the health benefits it. Adding a few drops of pure vanilla extract enhances the flavor and boosts the health benefits further.

Research at Pace University in NY showed that white tea is better than green at slowing the growth of viruses and bacteria. The Linus Pauling Institute has found that it helped prevent tumors in laboratory studies more effectively than other teas.

The Wall Street Journal rated white teas, giving Upton Tea Imports Organic China White Paklum the highest rating.(uptontea.com) They also recommended Adaggio Teas, White Peony, the most affordable (adagio.com), and The Republic of Tea's Silver Rain White Tea (republicoftea.com)as excellent. The only downside of white tea is cost; it's considerably more expensive than green or black teas as only the youngest tea leaves and buds are used, limiting the harvest to days or hours for the very finest tea leaves.

Green tea is also very high in antioxidants, is considerably less expensive and is easy to find in the marketplace. I experimented with both teas. The white tea doesn't have the slightly bitter aftertaste that is typical in green tea. It has a very delicate flavor and I found that the addition of vanilla extract enhanced its flavor. I wasn't sure how I'd like vanilla in green tea as its flavor is stronger. In fact, what I discovered is that it cuts the bitter aftertaste and I could add more vanilla to it than I expected I'm now drinking white or green tea daily with a little pure vanilla in it.

It's a "no-brainer" to add vanilla to yogurt and fruits, oatmeal, milk, cereals, power drinks, shakes, etc. Add 1/2 teaspoon or more per serving. It will only make these foods taste better. Add a little cinnamon (especially true cinnamon as opposed to cassia) and you've given the foods an additional boost. Pomegranates, cranberries, raspberries and blueberries are especially good fruits for cancer prevention.

A less obvious choice is to add pure vanilla to vegetables. Sweet potatoes, carrots and winter squash are all high in beta-carotene and antioxidants, are really good for the body, and are all sweet vegetables. Vanilla makes them even sweeter and more appealing. Get the bottle out and add 1/2 teaspoon or more per serving. You might also consider adding a little turmeric, the bright yellow herb found in curries. The curcumin in turmeric is known to be an anti-angiogenic. Be judicious at first, as it can cause slight stomach upset for some people.

Green vegetables are also high in antioxidants and also benefit from vanilla. This afternoon I had a mixture of steamed rainbow chard, English peas and fava beans, all spring vegetables. I added flaxseed oil, fresh lemon juice, Kosher salt and a pressed garlic clove all blended together, and then added 1/2 teaspon pure vanilla extract. The vanilla was subtle as the garlic was the predominant flavor.

Be playful and experiment. Share your best discoveries with us; we'd love to post them for others to use.
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Yesterday I spoke to a group of Culinary Historians in Los Angeles. It was sunny and warm outside, with a pleasant breeze. However, what really impressed me was the Los Angeles Main Library. At 10:00 a.m. when I arrived, people were lined up at all the entrances, despite the beautiful day! I asked the librarians about the crowd and they confirmed that the library is always very busy. There was a photo exhibit featuring the towns and people of Venice Beach, Encino, and Tarzana on the main floor and lovely gardens where people could go outside and read in the sun.

My slide-show and book reading was well-attended, and volunteers had baked cookies from The Vanilla Chef to serve with coffee at the reception. I mention this because with all we hear about the television and computer dominating people's lives, people DO still read and attend educational events! I really enjoy doing programs like this because people are genuinely interested in knowing more about vanilla and its uses, but they're also interested in the people who cultivate it around the world. It's fun to bring my "show on the road."

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

New Information on Vanilla's Medicinal Properties

Site visitor Bill Oliver sent some remarkable and very interesting information regarding vanilla's ability to repair DNA strands and its anti-mutagenic properties.http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/1997/Suppl-4/stoner-full.html

This is the key paragraph in the monograph:

--Inducers of DNA Repair. There are three possible chemopreventive mechanisms that involve DNA repair (70,71). The first is an increase in the overall level of DNA repair. An example of a naturally occurring chemical that increases the level of DNA repair is vanillin, which inhibits mammalian cell mutagenicity (72). The mechanisms through which vanillin promotes DNA repair have not been determined. Second, the enzyme poly(ADP-ribosyl)transferase (ADPRT) is involved in modulation of DNA damage (73,74), and the level of this enzyme is reduced by chemical carcinogens (75). N-Acetylcysteine prevents the decrease in ADPRT caused by the carcinogen 2-acetylaminofluorene (AAF) (75). The third mechanism is suppression of error-prone DNA repair. Protease inhibitors depress error-prone repair in bacteria (76), and it has been suggested that they could prevent carcinogenesis by inhibiting an error-prone repair system activated by proteases that, in turn, are induced by tumor promoters (!

Citations of additional information about vanilla as medicine:




or (scroll down the page to his information):

http://www.umdnj.edu/umcweb/marketing_and_communications/publications/umdnj_magazine/spring2004/6.htm Here there are two paragraphs about the work of Jeffrey D. Laskin, PhD on the prevention of prostrate cancer.

I intend to follow up on this with more information as I can find it. I would like to find out more about doseage for possible cancer prevention as well as doseage as an integrative therapy treatment for cancer. In the meantime, if any readers have additional information, please either post here or contact me at rain@vanilla.com

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Options For Vanilla Growers

Any farmer who has grown "luxury" crops (non-subsistance plants) for more than a few years, knows that supply and demand are the primary factors that drive the market. Several years ago coffee was the big luxury crop. Demand was high and wholesale prices were good. From the perspective of most seasoned coffee farmers, it made sense to produce their normal crop, maybe even increase production. Farmers new to growing luxury crops enthusiastically tore up their food plots on prime land and planted coffee bushes, certain that they would earn enough cash to get ahead.

While the seasoned farmers were careful and the new farmers took a huge risk, neither group had any way of knowing what was happening in other tropical countries. Well-meaning USAID and other government sponsored groups encouraged struggling farmers everywhere to plant coffee as it would be the ticket to their becoming self-sufficient. In fact, suddenly the market was inundated with coffee beans. Further, the cost of living in Vietnam, a country new to the coffee industry, was much lower than Central America where coffee had been grown for generations. Vietnam could afford to sell cheaply, and inadvertently undercut Central American farmers. Farmers who tore up their food crops in favor of coffee were faced with potential starvation. Who benefitted? The large companies who bought the cheap coffee and maintained a larger margin of profit than usual, well aware that people in industrialized countries weren't going to forego their coffee and were willing to pay a good price for it.

When vanilla prices skyrockted, the same pattern occurred. For some coffee farmers, this was an opportunity to recoup from their losses. And even as the prices have now collapsed, farmers contact me all the time to find out how to grow vanilla. Why? Partially because information is slow to reach people who live in the "bush" and haven't access to computers or market information. And partially because cost of living is low enough that it's worth it to take the chance. Unfortunately, it usually isn't in the grower's best interests.

So what should farmers do? First, always keep food crops on prime land so the family eats no matter what. If available land is limited, creating collectives where farmers work together to produce several crops and share in the profits makes sense. This is especially good for getting organic certification or Fair Trade status. Certification isn't cheap, but if costs are shared by several farmers, all benefit as organic crops command a higher price.

Creative planting of luxury crops is another option. An example of this can be seen in the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Central Veracruz has hundreds of hectares in citrus and, at one time, this region produced much of the US citrus crop. Then Brazil planted oranges that were cheaper than Mexican oranges, and Florida's citrus grows near the processing plants, so Mexico was largely cut out of the American citrus market. A few smart farmers started planting vanilla in their orange groves. The trees are excellent tutors, pollination and harvest times don't interfere with one another, and two crops are produced in the same space as one.

One final option is to look for low-interest government or international loans for starting value-added products from crops. In the case of vanilla, create extract for markets in nearby countries or for in-country use. Package vanilla beans and extracts for the tourist market. Start an ice cream factory or bakery in your area where vanilla can be used. Study recipes on my site or in my books and open a cafe in a tourist region featuring local foods flavored with vanilla. Resourcefulness is the key to survival. Work as a team so that everyone benefits. I realize these aren't magic solutions that will completely solve the problems farmers face when prices collapse, but hopefully it will provide "food for thought."

If you have thoughts or ideas to share on this topic, please do e-mail us; we'll be happy to post good suggestions.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Collapse of Vanilla Prices

Vanilla prices have definitely dropped and everyone who uses pure vanilla is cheering. I'm glad to see the prices drop for several reasons:

When prices hit $250 a kilo at point of origin, most industrial users (mainly frozen dessert manufacturers) stopped using vanilla entirely or switched to cheap synthetics, and vanilla consumption dropped dramatically. In 1998, world demand for pure vanilla was 2300 metric tons of vanilla beans annually. In 2004 it was 1200 metric tons and dropping! Consumption dropped by nearly half in six years!

When prices reached $500 a kilo at point of origin, growing vanilla was as dangerous as growing drugs! Theft, murder, and hijackings were commonplace in most vanilla-growing regions. In Madagascar, workers in the big processing houses had to change clothing when entering and leaving the workplace and were subject to pat-downs. The vanilla was put into large containers and welded shut each night and then opened with a blow torch the next morning! In Indonesia some villages built watch towers and growers all harvested the same day to prevent theft. In Papua New Guinea buses and trucks were ambushed along the highways and the vanilla and cash stolen. Mexico set up check-points along the highway and searched cars for stolen vanilla. Millitary helicopters circled plantations.

Growers harvested their vanilla well before it was ready to avoid theft. As a result, vanilla quality was uneven. Farmers who had paid premium prices to have their crops certified organic no longer bothered with the expensive and time-consuming process because their crops were valuable without certification. As a result, it became nearly impossible to find certified organic vanilla.

Individuals and cooperative groups worldwide planted vanilla with hopes of getting rich -- or at least paying their bills -- as the high prices spoke of hope. Coffee had collapsed a few years before the vanilla boom and growers tore up one crop to replace the other. Eventually an enormous overabundance of vanilla flooded the market from tropical countries worldwide. Some of the vanilla is premium quality, some is mediocre. But most of it was grown with hopes for a better life.

Now the craziness of the past several years is fading into the past...but what is the fallout of a boom/bust situation like this? Unfortunately, it's huge, but it's something that most of us are unlikey to hear about. Vanilla is an insignificant crop when compared with chocolate, coffee, sugar, or most other tropical commodities. We're talking less than 2500 metric tons in a boom time compared with millions of tons of coffee or cocoa beans. More than 97% of the world use of vanilla is from synthetics. So, it's highly unlikely that stories of the impact of the vanilla collapse will be headlines in industrialized countries.

So, here's what's happening currently: Most of the industrial users haven't switched back to pure vanilla, so tons and tons of vanilla are going to waste. Farmers have watched their latest dreams of getting a little further ahead dissolve into thin air. By the way, unless they knew how to properly cure and dry vanilla beans, the farmers didn't really benefit from the high prices. Rather, it was processors who gained from the high prices. A lot of middlemen, hopeful of breaking into the market and making it big-time are now considering new career options. The big vanilla companies are experiencing huge competition for the relatively small marketshare of vanilla sales. And the little companies are hanging on tooth and nail as it's nearly impossible for them to drop their prices rock-bottom to match the prices of the big companies as they haven't the resources to make it through until the prices stabilize. The only people to benefit from this transitional period are the consumers.

Personally, I hope that all of you who read this blog will take advantage of the low prices to use more pure vanilla. If you are at a loss for ways to use vanilla, our site offers hundreds of wonderful recipes and ideas: http://www.vanilla.com/html/recipeintro.html Our chefs-in-residence provide myriad ideas for using vanilla: http://www.vanilla.com/html/chef.html

While most of us won't take the time to do this, if you are so motivated, please encourage your favorite ice cream makers, chefs, restaurants, etc. to use pure vanilla in their products. More on this topic tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

An Ambulance for Mexico

In 2002 I wrote The Vanilla Chef and self published with the idea of donating $1.00 from the sale of each book to a medical fund for the poorest of the Mexican vanilla farmers. I chose Mexico because that's where vanilla originated. And I chose to self-publish because, contrary to how it may appear, authors receive very little for the sale of books, and I would not have earned enough to donate money from books published through mainstream publishing.

Last September, my friend Victor Vallejo, contacted me saying that the Papantla region Red Cross needed an ambulance, triage, and surgical equipment for emergency services for the people who live on ranchos. Although Papantla is a rural city of over 150,000 people, it is seriously lacking in services we take for granted in the United States. After a fire in December of 2002 where there was serious concern that the central part of the city would burn down, they FINALLY were able to secure a fire truck. And although the Mexican Red Cross has a small office in town, they have no supplies or equipment. This is especially frustrating as the Red Cross in many countries fulfills the same services that private ambulance companies provide in the US. The Red Cross unit helps people in need inside and outside of town with emergency care.

Yesterday we spoke with American Medical Response, a company that sells ambulances. They said they would be happy to donate an ambulance for the Papantla Red Cross!! We haven't finalized the details yet, but it's a milestone for us in our efforts to help farmers in the center of the Mexican vanilla industry.

We still need to secure triage and surgical equipment, wheel chairs, and other medical supplies. If you have connections to groups who can donate materials for this project, we would be very grateful. The Vanilla.COMpany is using the money we've set aside to pay for gas and other necessities to get the ambulance and equipment to Mexico. We are also donating several hundred copies of The Vanilla Chef to be sold to tourists visiting Papantla. All of the proceeds will go to keeping the Red Cross unit viable. We're excited about bringing this project to fruition.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Launching The Vanilla.COMpany

The opportunity for telling the behind-the-scenes story of The Vanilla.COMpany is exciting! It's been a journey of love for all of us who have been involved along the way. Although I bought the URL, vanilla.com in 1995, it wasn't until 2001 that I actually wrote the text, gathered the pictures, chose the products, created a team, and worked with our talented and dedicated web designer, Kathy Long (www.katandmouse.com), to breathe life into our business.

We launched exactly three weeks before the fateful September 11th. The dot.com crash had happened, the economy was already weak, and then came the 9/11 tragedy. Not very auspicious for a nascent Internet business. Even worse, the anthrax scare hit shortly after 9/11 -- no one was buying online! We made it through the first holiday season by organizing local craftswomen to join us to put on a boutique. We rented space and set up a beautiful show...and the worst storm of the year struck the weekend of our boutique! Nevertheless, we perservered and we have now been online for three and a half years.

Something I hadn't considered when I launched The Vanilla.COMpany was that I would meet so many people worldwide who would enrich my life and the lives of my staff. People whom I probably would never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise, came to our site for a variety of reasons. Perhaps to thank us for our site content or the quality of our products, or perhaps to inquire about growing or selling vanilla. Some of our exchanges were limited to one or two e-mail notes, but some writers have become like family. I now have dear friends and "nieces and nephews" in such far-flung places as India, Africa, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Tahiti, Mexico and Costa Rica, as well as Europe, Canada and the United States.

When vanilla was scarce we were able to assist farmers in selling their vanilla to the big vanilla bean buyers. It was so gratifying to receive notes from farmers telling us how the money from their bean sales helped their village to buy a truck or maybe a generator. Just sitting in front of my computer, I have been able to network and connect people in Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia so that they could support one another and provide help to each other.

Perhaps the most touching experience for me was when I was diagnosed with cancer. All these wonderful people I had met around the world began to pray for me. In villages, schools, churches, mosques, temples, heartfelt prayers that I would recover and be able to continue my work. I live in testimony to this love and prayer as I am in full remission, something not believed possible by the doctors.

In addition to writing about the vanilla industry and providing information both for consumers and producers, I will introduce you to some of the many amazing projects that are going on worldwide that never make the news. I will tell you about people I have encountered over the past several years who have dedicated their lives to making the world a little better. I welcome stories and news that you would like to share with us and we will post them in this blog. This includes stories from vanilla producers as well as consumers. Have a great recipe to share? Send it along. After all, my vision of this site is to have a wonderful, open dialog about vanilla for us all.