Vanillin is an organic compound with the molecular formula C8H8O3. It is a phenolic aldehyde. Its functional groups include aldehyde, hydroxyl, and ether. It is the primary component of the extract of the vanilla bean. Synthetic vanillin is now used more often than natural vanilla extract as a flavoring agent in foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals.
Natural vanilla extract is a mixture of several hundred different compounds in addition to vanillin. Artificial vanilla flavoring is often a solution of pure vanillin, usually of synthetic origin. Because of the scarcity and expense of natural vanilla extract, synthetic preparation of its predominant component has long been of interest. The first commercial synthesis of vanillin began with the more readily available natural compound eugenol (4-allyl-2-methoxyphenol). Today, artificial vanillin is made either from guaiacol or lignin.
Vanillin was first isolated as a relatively pure substance in 1858 by Nicolas-Theodore Gobley, who obtained it by evaporating a vanilla extract to dryness and recrystallizing the resulting solids from hot water. In 1874, the German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann deduced its chemical structure, at the same time finding a synthesis for vanillin from coniferin, a glucoside of isoeugenol found in pine bark. Tiemann and Haarmann founded a company Haarmann and Reimer (now part of Symrise) and started the first industrial production of vanillin using their process in Holzminden, Germany. In 1876, Karl Reimer synthesized vanillin (2) from guaiacol (1).
Synthetic vanillin became significantly more available in the 1930s, when production from clove oil was supplanted by production from the lignin-containing waste produced by the sulfite pulping process for preparing wood pulp for the paper industry. By 1981, a single pulp and paper mill in Thorold, Ontario supplied 60% of the world market for synthetic vanillin. However, subsequent developments in the wood pulp industry have made its lignin wastes less attractive as a raw material for vanillin synthesis. Today, approximately 15% of the world's production of vanillin is still made from lignin wastes, while approximately 85% synthesized in a two-step process from the petrochemical precursors guaiacol and glyoxylic acid.
Vanillin is most prominent as the principal flavor and aroma compound in vanilla. Cured vanilla pods contain about 2% by dry weight vanillin; on cured pods of high quality, relatively pure vanillin may be visible as a white dust or "frost" on the exterior of the pod.
First, the seed pods are blanched in hot water, to arrest the processes of the living plant tissues. Then, for 1–2 weeks, the pods are alternately sunned and sweated: during the day they are laid out in the sun, and each night wrapped in cloth and packed in airtight boxes to sweat. During this process, the pods become dark brown, and enzymes in the pod release vanillin as the free molecule. Finally, the pods are dried and further aged for several months, during which time their flavors further develop. Several methods have been described for curing vanilla in days rather than months, although they have not been widely developed in the natural vanilla industry, with its focus on producing a premium product by established methods, rather than on innovations that might alter the product's flavor profile.
Vanillin is also used in the fragrance industry, in perfumes, and to mask unpleasant odors or tastes in medicines, livestock fodder, and cleaning products. It is also used in the flavor industry, as a very important key note for many different flavors, especially creamy profiles such as cream soda.