Walk down any baking aisle at the grocery store, and you’ll notice two types of vanilla on the shelf. The one with the higher price tag is vanilla extract, made from the seedpods of the vanilla orchid, which grows in the shade in tropical areas like Madagascar and Indonesia. The other “vanilla” is a much lower-priced flavoring made from a chemical compound called vanillin, using a chemical process with petroleum as the base.
Pioneering synthetic biology efforts, however, are leading to a third option that now allows food scientists more control over its flavor profile: the first “synbio” vanilla flavoring. Synbio vanillin, the primary chemical inside the vanilla bean that gives it its flavor, is produced with brewer’s yeast that has been genetically engineered to be able to make a chemical compound—in this case, vanillin. This process is also being used to produce synbio stevia (a sweetener), synbio saffron, and synbio resveratrol, a dietary supplement with antioxidant properties, says Todd Kuiken, a senior program associate with the Synthetic Biology Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Synbio vanillin and synbio resveratrol have been on the market since 2014, while synbio saffron and stevia will likely be available next year, he says.
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