Did you know all types of chocolate contained vanilla – or vanillin, to be specific? From the purest, darkest varieties to the sweetest white chocolate, none of these would taste right without the precious molecule, of which Solvay happens to be the leading producer.
When the Aztecs invented chocolate in the 15th century, they combined two locally native plants: cocoa alone was too bitter, so they added cured beans from the vanilla flower. From the earliest origins of chocolate, vanillin, the molecule responsible for the typical vanilla taste we’re so familiar with, has always been present.
Not enough beans to go around
Vanilla brings roundness to chocolate, it enhances the sweetness of milk chocolate and smoothes the pungency of dark chocolate. Vanillin is so essential to chocolate production that it’s added at two different steps in the manufacturing process: cocoa processors incorporate it to the cocoa paste, and chocolate manufacturers add it during the conching phase of chocolate production.
Today, we gobble massive amounts of chocolate, chiefly during the Christmas and Easter periods, which makes vanillin a highly demanded product. The problem is, natural vanilla extract, almost entirely produced in Madagascar, is a labor-intensive, relatively small-scale production which could never meet this huge demand. In fact, the 1800 to 2000 tons of vanilla extract produced each year don’t even cover 1% of global needs; in addition, increasing demand combined with speculation have led prices to jump from $50 to $500 for a kilo of vanilla beans since 2000. Using natural vanilla extract simply wouldn’t be economically viable for a massively produced product such as chocolate.
Just the right molecule
Lucky for chocolate lovers, there are other ways of producing vanillin. Manufacturers have actually been able to produce an exact copy of the molecule for some time now, and today, the global production of vanillin that isn’t derived from vanilla beans is about 20,000 metric tons per year. And guess who was a historic pioneer in this field and remains a global leader today? Solvay.
The company has been active in this market since 1884. Today, its flagship product is Rhovanil®, produced in three units: at the historic plant in Lyon, France, as well as in Louisiana, USA and at a recently developed facility in China. Rhovanil® is used by all the major chocolate manufacturers worldwide as it offers the highest purity on the market, combined with the advantage of stable production and pricing as it’s derived from phenol, and therefore isn’t dependent on agricultural and climatic conditions.
A few years ago, answering increasing demand for natural aromas, Solvay developed Rhovanil® Natural, which is extracted from rice bran oil and is the only natural vanilla flavor complying with stringent EU regulations. The raw material – rice – is widely available and allergen-free, and only non-GMO varieties are used. The manufacturing process implies extracting ferulic acid from the rice bran oil, which is then transformed into vanillin through bioconversion.
Though all chocolates require vanillin, they only represent 11% of the global vanillin market. The biggest segment for Rhovanil® is actually baked goods – and increasingly so, as manufacturers tend to reduce the amount of sugar they contain. Whether it be for cookies, pastries or chocolates, vanillin provides that irreplaceable sweet note that isn’t likely to go out of fashion anytime soon.