Some people are surprised that vanilla beans look the way they do. Many expect them to look more like coffee beans, but they actually look like long, blackened bean pods. The mildly sweet extract from cured vanilla beans is commonly used for flavoring, although you may get some health benefits from it too. Synthetic vanilla extract is significantly cheaper than real varieties, but the fake stuff doesn't have the same beneficial properties.
Lower Calorie Sweetener
Pure vanilla bean extract isn’t very sweet, especially compared to artificial and refined sugars, but its unique flavor can enhance the taste of baked goods, smoothies and coffee and reduce the need for additional sweeteners. As such, vanilla extract can be considered a lower calorie sugar substitute. The main downsides are that real vanilla extract is pricey and it contains trace amounts of alcohol. The alcohol content is evaporated with baking, but not if it’s added to beverages. In contrast, synthetic vanilla extract is typically higher in calories and contains no alcohol.
Source of Some Vitamins and Minerals
Vanilla bean extract is not super nutritious, but it’s a source of small quantities of vitamins and minerals. For example, the natural extract contains many B vitamins such as B-1, B-2, B-3, B-5 and B-6. B vitamins are important for metabolism and energy production, as well as the synthesis of enzymes. Real vanilla bean extract also contains many minerals in trace amounts such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc. Minerals are important for strong bones and teeth, but are also needed for normal muscle tone and fluid distribution.
Mild Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory
The main active compound in vanilla extract is vanillin, which accounts for most of its flavor, but it also acts as a mild antioxidant capable of eliminating harmful free radicals. Other compounds in pure vanilla extract that display mild antioxidant or anti-inflammatory properties include eugenol, caproic acid, phenol ether, carbonyl compounds, esters, lactones and vitispiranes. Natural vanilla extract may also have some ability to combat bacterial and fungal infections, according to "Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews," although more research is needed before medical claims can be made.
Vanilla extract has a long history of use in the Americas not only as a flavoring, but also as an aphrodisiac, sedative, antidepressant and sleep aid. The ability of vanilla extract to affect hormones of the body and neurotransmitters of the brain is not well established by scientific studies, although many decades of anecdotal claims make it an intriguing possibility. Many other herbal remedies, such as Valerian root, chamomile and passion fruit, are proven to alter mood, so the potential certainly exists for vanilla bean. If the taste or scent of vanilla is relaxing for most people, that would explain why it’s commonly used in candles and potpourri.
- Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine; Simon Mills and Kerry Bone
- Natural Standard Herb & Supplement Reference: Evidence-based Clinical Reviews; Catherine E. Ulbricht and Ethan M. Basch
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.