"Plain as vanilla?" Not any longer. What was once synonymous with boring is suddenly soaring.
The seemingly conflicting trends toward lighter, healthier foods on the one hand, and the return to homey, comfort foods on the other, have harmonized to make this once invisible flavoring a shining star in its own right.
Not only have manufacturers of low-fat goods discovered that the addition of vanilla can help compensate for the loss of fat, but commercial food makers in general are finding that consumers welcome the nostalgic simplicity of vanilla at a time when multiple combinations like raspberry-kiwi-pineapple abound.
The vanilla boom is not restricted to packaged goods. Greater numbers of restaurant chefs and home cooks are now experimenting with whole vanilla beans to create foods with pure vanilla flavor and the whole bean has become more readily available in grocery stores.
Vanilla's image is getting a make-over, too, with new packaging to make consumers aware of the source of pure, natural vanilla flavor: the bean of the vanilla orchid plant. For instance, the container of Haagen-Dazs ice cream sports an orchid and vanilla beans,
"For a long time, people overlooked how complex and delicate vanilla is," says Terry Olson, director of ice cream for Haagen-Dazs. Vanilla ice cream has always been one of the company's best sellers, he adds, but it's now growing at a faster pace than all other flavors.
Mr. Olson thinks vanilla desserts are "the perfect comfort food," and sees the flavor's revival as part of the "return of classic flavors -- things you can count on time after time."
The popularity of vanilla is borne out by the increase in vanilla-bean imports -- up almost 37 percent in 1993 over 1990 levels, according to the statistics of the Flavoring and Extracts Manufacturers Association, in Washington. Most vanilla beans are used to make extracts, a key ingredient in many frozen desserts and other packaged goods.
Consumers' ever-growing demand for tasty low-fat and nonfat treats is a boon to the vanilla market. Extract added to frozen desserts "boosts the flavor and replaces flavor lost from fat reduction," says Mark Mitchell, product manager of McCormick & Company. It also helps to mask "off-notes," the funny aftertaste of some diet foods.
Vanilla coffees, frozen desserts, cakes and frostings, are becoming instant best sellers, according to Quaker Foresight a food-industry newsletter. And you'll find vanilla in department stores and drugstores, too, in a myriad of new vanilla-scented products like perfumes, air fresheners, and carpet deodorizers.
A quick perusal through a supermarket dairy aisle will confirm that food makers are using a new visual approach to reintroduce and reinforce the image of vanilla. Dannon has sold a vanilla yogurt for 40 years, but for the first time recently launched a media campaign to showcase it. The old blue and white container has been scrapped for one that displays vanilla beans and the orchid flower, to say "This is vanilla, but it's not plain, it's very, very good," explains Becky Ryan, spokeswoman for Dannon.
Even vanilla's name is getting a make-over. New products from cake mixes to diet drinks are being labeled "French Vanilla." The term French vanilla traditionally refers to the combination of vanilla and eggs in a custard or ice cream. Although these new packaged products sometimes do contain eggs, they mostly have artificial vanilla flavoring and artificial yellow coloring. Marketers are capitalizing on consumers' association of French foods with elegance. For example, cake mix companies can now offer consumers not only classic vanilla mixes, but also French vanilla mixes, thus doubling the number of vanilla flavored products.
Gives flavors a boost
Vanilla is also being added to enhance previously lackluster sellers, such as hazelnut coffee. Since vanilla was added to round out the flavor a few years ago, hazelnut coffee has rapidly become the best-selling flavored coffee in the United States. "We can hardly keep the stuff in stock," says Tom Thompson of the Coffee Mill, whose Baltimore shop sells hazelnut coffee, vanilla beans, decaffeinated vanilla tea and a number of gourmet products such as sweet white vanilla powder.
The desire for stronger and purer vanilla flavor has increased the availability of vanilla beans for the home cook. Beans from Madagascar -- known as Bourbon vanilla beans -- are now available at most grocery stores from the gourmet to the everyday, including many Super Fresh and Giant stores, Sutton Place Gourmet, Eddie's and Fells Point Coffee in the Broadway Market.
Whole vanilla beans should be kept in an airtight container away from light and heat until ready for use. Whole beans can be used instead of extract in any cooked recipe: just split the bean lengthwise and add the seeds as you would the extract. One-half bean is approximately equal to 1 teaspoon of extract.