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Is it Wood Pulp, Cow Dung or Orchid Fruit? What ARE You Putting in Your Bakes??

05/03/2015 12:02 GMT | Updated 03/05/2015 10:59 BST

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Image Credit: Nielsen-Massey

It is something most of us have in our cupboards but probably think about the least. We put it in a lot of things from cakes to cocktails and yet we really don't consider its origins. We accept it as an expensive but necessary part of life. Do we really know what we are putting in to our bodies? Should we? I think that we need to pay more attention to one ingredient which could be natural, or a chemical derivative of the papermaking process.

It isn't just me who is crusading about this pervasive but little understood ingredient. Eric Lanlard is one of the most prominent bakers on the London baking scene right now with five cookbooks and the shop "Cake Boy" and he has been on a mission about this ingredient since school. He has forced one specific brand of this substance on everyone he has worked for - even the Roux brothers where he displaced a French rival in the process. What has gotten Eric so passionate that he will risk the wrath of the Roux brothers among others? Vanilla - but not just any vanilla, the genuine article made from sustainable sources by a company who invest in the social welfare of the areas they work in.

Eric has worked with one specific vanilla since he learned how to bake at school and has continued forcing everyone he encounters to work with it no matter where he has worked. But why care? It is an expensive ingredient so surely he should be all about saving stretched budgets? Vanilla seems to be added to everything from cookies to cocktails and as such an expensive ingredient surely responsible bakers should be looking for cheaper alternatives? I'm here to tell you why I object to the alternatives and why I think, like Eric, that only real vanilla will do.

Vanilla isn't something many people think much about. While I have always used vanilla extract, I have never given it much thought. It was something that was always a part of every cake, cookie, cupcake, brownie and loaf but not something I ever thought much about. Vanilla was just something I included because the cookbook told me to. On researching this ingredient after meeting Matt Nielsen of Nielsen Massey, I cleaned out my cupboards having learned some shocking truths. And yes, some of what you might have in your cupboard may be made from poo or chemical waste!

On the positive side, real vanilla extract comes from the vanilla bean (as does vanilla paste etc). The vanilla bean is the natural product of a pollinated orchid flower. This kind of orchid is a non-invasive species which has not led to the destruction of rainforests like palm oil has, nor is it the result of child slave labour (as far as I have found in research) like some chocolate is (I'm looking at you Ivory Coast). Vanilla, it turns out, is the result of an extremely fussy flower which requires pruning and thinning and careful yield management, much like some grape varieties. It is a plant that is grown in Mexico, Indonesia, the West Indies and Madagascar but Madagascar and Indonesia lead the world in the production of vanilla.

It is quite possibly because of the required hand pollination of the vanilla orchid that third world countries rule vanilla production globally. Hand pollination and the sensitivity of the vine to over-production makes vanilla the second most expensive spice after saffron. It means you can't increase the density of the yield on the vine so no matter what, vanilla production is limited by the plant itself. This special orchid remains delicate, complex and high maintenance (like me). Matt from Nielsen Massey was keen to point out that his company is passionate about quality and that they have full traceability and invest in the countries they source vanilla from through local charities. As someone who does a lot with chocolate where there can be slave labour and poverty it was good to hear that at least one company involved in vanilla production is giving back to those communities they are using. While they aren't going in and working directly like Askinosie does, Nielsen Massey do make sure they give back to the community.

Synthetic vanilla, on the other (cheaper) hand, is composed of chemicals intended to mimic real vanilla. The high cost of vanilla makes this a particularly lucrative endeavour for the determined vanilla faker. Originally most fake vanilla - often referred to as vanilla essence rather than vanilla extract as if to ensure confusion - was the result of the paper industry. Yes, you were putting an industrial by-product involving heavy-duty chemicals into your cake. In the last thirty years, a Japanese scientist has managed to extract the chemical components of vanilla essence from cow dung. So if you aren't using real vanilla in your baking, cooking or cocktails, you could be consuming either chemicals from papermaking or cow dung. Yummy (not)!

A chemical alternative which is indistinguishable from the real thing would be a significant earner for the unscrupulous faker. There are now specific tests to ensure the purity of vanilla before it goes to market because it can be so difficult to tell the difference by smell alone. While some vanilla essence has clear chemical notes, good essence can be indistinguishable and given the difference in price, it is a problem that is only solvable by having full traceability - or, you know, using a whole vanilla pod every time you want to add vanilla and that is even more expensive! As someone who judges chocolate, I can tell the difference between a number of synthetic vanilla essences and the real thing but some fool even my nose. It won't work the same for your bakes and mousses and cocktails though and you'll be ingesting something questionable.

I hope I have convinced you that using real vanilla is preferable to using synthetic and that some real vanilla producers not only make a great product but also reinvest in local communities. If this happened more widely in all industries the whole world would be a better place :-)

What about you - what is in *your* cupboard..?