Fair Trade Vanilla: Anything but Plain Fair Trade Vanilla: Anything but Plain

Fair Trade Vanilla: Anything but Plain

June 2, 2011

While the word "plain" is often used to modify vanilla, the origins of this ubiquitous and delicious flavoring are anything but. Vanilla derives from an orchid plant, which is native to Mexico and has been cultivated there and through Central America. Eventually Madagascar began producing vanilla and is on one of the world's largest vanilla producers. Vanilla is very expensive—second only to saffron among spices—and can be purchased as a whole pod or in the more common extract form. It is an essential ingredient in dessert preparation and increasingly utilized for savory dishes as well. While many people identify themselves along one side of the chocolate-vanilla flavor divide, vanilla is in fact so widely appealing that it can often be found on the list of ingredients for chocolate-centric products.


Vanilla grows in numerous warm, tropical locations around the world, including India, Uganda, and Madagascar. In 2000, Madagascar was one of the world's largest producers but was hit by powerful cyclones.  The vanilla crops were destroyed, driving prices sky high, and spurring many food manufacturers to switch to cheaper, synthetic vanilla. Today, cultivators of real vanilla—which comes from orchid plants—are still working to recover some of that market. Many have turned to fair trade production in order to get higher value from their yield, which can be nearly three times the price from the conventional market.

Vanilla cultivation is a time consuming and precise process that involves hand-pollination and a years-long maturation process. Almost half of all fair trade vanilla beans are grown organically and most all is grown in shaded areas among other crops.

While the most imported fair trade spices are cloves, cinnamon, white pepper, and black pepper, vanilla has seen steady growth, with imports of fair trade vanilla growing 20 percent in 2009. Through fair trade premiums paid on spices like vanilla, in 2009 more than $40,000 in community development funds went back to small-scale producer groups in India, Sri Lanka, and Uganda, funding training for farmers on organic farming and environmental sustainability. 

A must-have ingredient for baking, spices like vanilla can be packaged as high-quality pods in retail-ready bottles, or can be found listed in blended in mixes of other products, like baking mixes and prepared foods.

This post is in partnership with Ben & Jerry's
Image 1 (cc) by Flickr user Simon Goldenberg
Image 2 (cc) from Fair Trade USA
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Fair Trade Vanilla: Anything but Plain