It seems a simple thing, yet “plain vanilla” is anything but plain, a fact especially true for vanillin, the compound that gives natural vanilla extract its characteristic flavor and aroma. Because world demand for vanilla flavoring far exceeds the supply of vanilla beans, chemically synthesized vanillin fills that gap and does so economically.

Development of the guaiacol ex-catechol process lessened the environmental impact of synthesizing vanillin. To further improve its vanillin products, Rhodia, member of the Solvay group, switched in the past year to using food-grade bio-ethanol as the sole solvent in this process, a method the company pioneered 40 years ago. Rhodia’s two vanillin plants at Baton Rouge, LA, and St. Fons, France, now follow this method for producing the company’s Rhovanil vanillin and Rhodiarome ethyl vanillin.

“For us, vanillin is a food ingredient, not just an aroma chemical,” explained Vincent Lajotte, aroma ingredients business director, Rhodia Aroma Performance, Lyon, France. “By removing all other solvents, we are making the process even cleaner and the ingredient more consistent in purity.”

The importance of this change can be measured by the progress in synthesizing methods. Vanillin was first produced in the 1870s from eugenol found in clove oil. In the 1920s, lignin, a byproduct of turning wood pulp into paper, became the base stock, and some vanillin still is made this way. The guaiacol ex-catechol process, developed in the 1970s, starts with petrochemicals and requires far less energy than previous methods.


Big volume, big usage


World trade in natural vanilla comes to 2,000 tons annually, but vanillin production amounts to 15,000 tons per year, according to 2007 statistics from SRI International, a Silicon Valley-based independent nonprofit research group. Among aroma chemicals, only menthol exceeds vanillin in volume; however, just 17% of menthol goes into foods, compared with 80% of vanillin. Ice cream and chocolate account for 75% of the market for vanillin as a flavoring, and sweet baked goods — cookies, cakes and pastries, along with icings, glazes and enrobed coatings — also use significant quantities.

Vanillin not only provides the major component of artificial vanilla flavors, but it also enhances and extends chocolate. “And it masks bitter tastes, useful when formulating with stevia or other high-intensity sweeteners,” Mr. Lajotte said. In addition, vanillin carries antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, the latter useful in baby foods.

“Rhovanil vanillin is recommended where strong vanilla character is an absolute necessity. In some other applications that require a warm, cost-effective vanilla note, Rhodiarome ethyl vanillin is often chosen,” Mr. Lajotte explained.

Because ethyl vanillin is more intense, usage levels differ substantially from those of vanillin. For example, biscuit-style cookies made with vegetable shortening will require 0.5 to 0.6 g vanillin per kg (23 to 27 g per cwt) but only 0.2 g ethyl vanillin per kg (9 g per cwt). “These dosages may vary depending on local food customs,” Mr. Lajotte said, noting that mixing and processing determine the final taste of products.


Safety matters


By switching solvents to a food-grade substance, Rhodia reaffirmed its commitment to food safety, which Mr. Lajotte termed a responsibility shared by ingredient supplier and end user. “Safety is built into every step of the manufacturing chain through quality-oriented process design, back integration and end-to-end traceability,” he said. The company controls all steps upstream in its vanillin synthesis process.

Rhodia achieved a major goal in food safety when its two vanillin sites received Food Safety System Certification (FSSC) 22000 in 2011. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) benchmarked this scheme as best in class. FSSC is managed by the Foundation for Food Safety Certification located at Gorinchem, The Netherlands, and it specifically targets the food manufacturing sector.

Mr. Lajotte explained that both plants are already certified under ISO 9000 and comply with HACCP requirements and AIB International inspection standards. In addition, the Baton Rouge plant meets the requirements of NFPA-GMA SAFE.

Rhodia offers a customized product range, and its technical experts will work with customers to address formulating needs. For more information describing vanillin ingredients, go to