If you’ve experienced sticker shock when purchasing vanilla beans or vanilla extract, you’re not alone. The high cost of vanilla beans often discourages people from buying pure vanilla extract. Instead, they reach for the imitation extract at a fraction of the cost. And if you happen to find vanilla beans in the store, they’re often more expensive than the extract itself.
So why are vanilla beans and extract so expensive? It mostly boils down to the labor that goes into producing vanilla—but that’s not the only reason.
From the moment the vanilla orchids are planted until the day they’re harvested, the entire growth process is manual—right down to hand-pollinating the orchids on the one day each year when they bloom. To offset the amount of time and labor that goes into cultivating and harvesting, farmers charge more for their product. In order to make a profit, stores have to raise the price of vanilla beans and extract.
Climate Change and the Economy
Nearly 80 per cent of the world’s vanilla is grown in Madagascar. When unfavorable weather hits the islands, it greatly affects production—which will be reflected in vanilla prices. Since most of the country’s income comes from the vanilla industry, economic changes, export laws and delivery shortages also have a great impact on how much vanilla makes it out of the country and onto supermarket shelves around the world.
The average price of half a pound of vanilla beans is $80–$100. However, if international export issues arise, or if there has been climate trouble where the vanilla is grown, the price can get even higher.
Once the beans are harvested, there’s still more work to be done. The crop has to dry and cure for months (sometimes as long as a year), which means that planting and curing can take well over a year. Since this is a lengthy and delicate process, vanilla farmers can’t always keep up with supply and demand for vanilla beans, so price fluctuations are just par for the course.
Is Pure Vanilla Worth the Money?
Technically, your recipes would be perfectly fine with imitation vanilla. However, even the best of artificial vanillas can’t replicate the exotic and aromatic flavor of natural vanilla. Imitation vanilla extract also contains ingredients you might be hesitant to ingest. Coal tar, wood pulp and a petrochemical called guaiacol are among the products used to create it, so you have to decide if you’re willing to consume them.
Only real vanilla beans can provide that pure, authentic vanilla taste in your dish and vanilla emulsion. However, because of their labor-intensive growth and preparation process, the prices of vanilla beans can get a little steep—especially during a time of inflation. High-cost vanilla beans might seem like a waste, but just think of the love and dedication that went into their production. If you can afford to spend extra money, don’t opt for the cheaper stuff—your taste buds will thank you.