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We’re always warned about how humans will eventually deplete the world of non-renewable resources and irreversibly change the planet and how we live. Yes, that’s a problem, but it turns out we might run out of something much more crucial before that happens – vanilla. Yes, that flavour that often gets overlooked at the ice cream counter or in chocolate chip cookies but is essential to human happiness is in dangerously short supply at the moment.

In recent years, the demand for vanilla has risen steadily as large companies decide to make their products more natural and use real vanilla instead of artificial flavourings. Over that time the price of vanilla has more than tripled in Canada with the price of four litres of liquid extract going from $180 to $600. In some places in Europe, the price of vanilla is more than the price of silver; it’s officially the second-most expensive spice on the market after saffron. In response to the price hike, companies are having to increase prices on products containing vanilla and smaller bakeries and restaurants are having to rethink how they flavour their most popular desserts.

What’s causing this world-wide shortage? Part of it is keeping up with increased demand, but the most significant factor this year is the cyclone that wiped out a third of Madagascar’s vanilla crops in March last year. Madagascar supplies 80 to 85 per cent of the world’s vanilla so a blow like that (pardon the pun) was devastating.

Vanilla is also super difficult to cultivate. Vines take three to four years to mature and the plants require hand-pollination because vanilla flowers only open for one day during the season. The beans then take nine months to grow and need to be picked at the perfect time for optimal vanilla content. Then it takes another few months of production to blanch, sweat and sun-dry the beans until they can be used in cooking and extracts. It takes about 600 vanilla orchid blossoms to make one kilogram of dried beans.

There’s some good news though. The owners of a Montreal-based spice import company told National Post that prices have likely reached their peak and may come down soon.

“Vanilla has hit these cycles every 10 to 15 years for the past 100 years. Currently, we estimate we’re past the peak as prices and supplies ‘seem’ to be stabilizing,” they said, “If this cycle holds true, we should start seeing prices declining within a year or two.”

In the meantime, companies are turning more to the artificial vanillin – extracted from wood or petroleum — for their vanilla flavouring. It’s obviously not as good as the real stuff, but vanillin is already used for 95 per cent of the “vanilla flavoured” stuff out there and it sure is better than nothing.