An investigation by the British independent consumer agency Which? It has revealed the paradox of summer: most vanilla ice cream contains neither vanilla nor ice cream. So, what are these sweet and frozen masses made of? Its ingredients: synthetic aromas, palm oil and armed conflicts in Madagascar, the country that produces 75% vanilla in the world.
The vanillin, a synthetic flavoring that is usually extracted from guaiacol, a derivative of petroleum, is what usually brings flavor to ice cream and other products that do not contain natural vanilla. The industry uses it to be much cheaper and has become popular in recent years in which vanilla has not stopped rising. Today, a kilo of vanilla costs 442 euros per kilo (and has cost 545 € / kg), more than a kilo of silver (which is about 409 € / kg). Vanilla is already the second most expensive species, behind the saffron. Despite their quotation in international markets, Malagasy producers only earn a quarter of the export price.
This price increase is due, to a large extent, to bad weather. Cyclone Enawo has affected Madagascar since 2004, one of the poorest countries according to the World Bank, and damages about one third of the crop year after year.
Climate change and mafias can leave the world without vanilla
This is the icing on the cake for a country that suffers a poverty of 77%.
To this is added the delicate nature of the vanilla crop itself: its pollination is manual and can only be done during part of a single day, in the hours when the flower opens. Only then can a pod grow, that when harvested, it will have to be cured in the sun during the day and fermented in boxes during the night in a process that lasts between three and six months.
The price of vanilla has also led to conflicts in the countryside, where peasants arm themselves as much as they can to monitor their crops (sleeping and even living among the plants) of looters who want to take advantage of the precious booty. “We arm ourselves because the thieves are armed. We have no other choice, “said Jao Nasaina, a 58-year-old farmer from the northeast of the island whose harvest was uprooted and stolen by the roots last year.
To avoid such thefts, the farmers resolve to collect the vanilla before time, when they have not yet matured, something that greatly diminishes their quality. However, the government detected and banned this practice in 2017, when it publicly burned 500 kilos of this green vanilla to serve as a precedent for future attempts at malpractice.
Another technique that producers are also using is to record their names in the pods, as if it were a serial number. According to an article by the BBC, plantation robberies are constant and violent. So much that there have already been dozens of murders in Madagascar linked to vanilla.
With regard to the question of ice cream, according to the Which ?, research, cream, fresh milk and eggs that define ice cream are being replaced by cheaper products due to a deregulation that occurred in 2015. Until then , the definition of ice cream had to be minimally adjusted to the traditional recipe, by which each sweet should contain 5% fatty milk and 2.5% milk protein. But with the entry into force of the Food Information Regulations, the minimum labeling requirements for ice cream disappeared. In this way, products that until now were not considered frozen, such as vegan or skimmed alternatives, could be sold as such.