Editors' Note: In April 2000, Hurricane Hudah ripped through the island of Madagascar, seriously damaging the vanilla crop and reducing supply. This drove vanilla prices up and flavor quality down. The impact of this is still being felt today. Now there are reports that there was a failure of vanilla plants to flower in Madagascar, which will affect the 2003 crop that becomes available for use as extract in 2004. Reprised and updated here is "Tharp & Young On Ice Cream," reflecting on the old, recognizing the new and offering some recommendations to help with the current and future vanilla situations.
Q What is the cause of and what can be done to cope with the current limited availability of vanilla extract?
A Supply and demand for vanilla is usually in balance, but since early 2000, this has not been the case. When Hurricane Hudah visited Madagascar --the world's major producer of vanilla beans --it destroyed almost one third of the total vanilla crop, just as the vanilla beans were maturing. Because it takes vanilla three years to replant, flower and produce beans, and since it takes almost another year to get ripened beans to market, the effect of this production loss has been devastating. On top of this crisis comes word that many vanilla plants failed to flower during the critical flowering period of August through November 2002 due to unseasonably wet, windy and cold conditions. The 2003 crop is estimated to be between 40-75% lower than the 2002 crop. Other growing regions will not be able to make up the volume and quality difference. Thus, many of the issues of supply, price and quality will once again be discussed, argued and negotiated throughout 2003 and beyond.
Just as critical as loss of production volume is change of flavor quality. With demand outstripping supply, immature beans may get to market. Use of these immature beans can yield less than desirable flavor, aroma and taste profiles. Alternate growing regions to Madagascar, such as Indonesia, will not be able to deliver the flavor quality reflected in vanilla from Madagascar. Indonesia's crop, which is on a different growing cycle, is now being bought and much of it is reported to be early-picked, which translates to poor quality.
All this is most critical for dairy foods, which use nearly 70% of all vanilla extract produced. At greatest risk are Category I (vanilla ice creams) and Category II (vanilla-flavored ice creams), where vanilla extract constitutes all or a high percent of added flavor. Artificially flavored vanilla ice creams (Category III) are not affected. Managing taste and flavor quality are critical to achieve sensory targets.
Q What can be done to maintain the quality and cost of vanilla ice cream?
A Look at the real need for vanilla extract in all formulas including non-ice cream products. Can it be totally or partially replaced with some other variant or replacer of vanilla flavor? Can vanilla extract be spared in one product but used in another? Pay careful attention to labeling requirements involved and packaging changes that need to be considered. Can the amount and/or type of vanilla extract(s) be modified? Might you consider a change in flavor category of ice cream?
Perhaps modifications to mix composition might assist. These could be focused on reducing the impact of components or characteristics that typically mask or modify the perception of vanilla flavor, such as amount and type of corn sweeteners, total sweetness, total solids, fat and serum solids including whey ingredients. For example, low D.E. (dextrose equivalent) corn syrups mute vanilla flavor. They are great for various body and textural elements of ice cream, but too much can reduce the fresh, "crispness" of fine vanilla flavor. High molecular weight proteins can bind many of the fine volatiles of vanilla, directly modifying the amount and rate at which these are released during consumption.
Fat plays a factor too. Fat is the subtle carrier of many of vanilla's background volatiles and it too impacts the desired release of volatile flavors. And don't forget the impact of color and appearance in the perception (quality and intensity) of any flavor. Most importantly, work closely with your vanilla extract suppliers. There may be new or, perhaps, not so new approaches, products and technologies that may help manage a way through this new vanilla crisis.
As noted two years ago and unfortunately true today, this is not a short-term situation. Take time and do it right.