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Vanilla Beans: Benefits, Uses, And More

6 min. read

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While savory spices tend to get the most attention when discussing the health benefits of flavorings, you shouldn’t count the sweeter ones out. Vanilla beans, and pure vanilla extract, should land near the top of the list. 

Healthy Directions wants you to know what you’re putting in your body, so we wanted to look at those potential benefits more closely today.

Where Does Vanilla Bean Come From?

Vanilla beans have an interesting backstory, one that may surprise you. While many other spices and flavorings come from everyday plants, vanilla beans are the product of the orchid. Yes, the very same, beautifully colored type of orchid that people keep on their desks as decoration. 

The vanilla bean orchid (or Vanilla planifolia) is a tropical plant species grown in high temperatures and humid environments. Botanists consider the plant semi-epiphytic, which means it can be grown either in the soil or in the air (as an epiphyte).

When found in nature, the vanilla bean orchid can grow up to 100 feet in length, as it commonly attaches itself to a host tree in a zigzag climbing pattern. In fact, true vanilla beans are so expensive (second only to saffron) because it takes three to five years for the plant to mature enough to produce them. 

Although they are called “beans,” vanilla is actually from the seed pods of the orchid. When they first appear, they look similar to green beans. To get them into their sellable state, they need to be harvested from the plant and wrapped nightly to allow moisture to condense on the pods.

During the day, the pods are either placed directly in the sun or under a heat lamp. This process continues for six weeks, and then the pods are stored in a dry, dark place for an additional three months. 

The results are those brown, shriveled pods that you can find in most high-end stores.

What Makes Vanilla Bean Beneficial?

In addition to their taste, vanilla beans also come with a few health benefits. Most of those benefits are tied to an aptly named phenolic phytochemical known as vanillin, which is found in vanilla beans and vanilla extract. 

Through research, several beneficial properties of vanillin have been discovered. The compound is an antioxidant, may benefit brain health, and shows potential to help with inflammation. It’s essential to remember that these properties have only been researched on animals and have not yet made it to human trials.

Vanilla Beans Can Function as an Antioxidant

As we touched on, vanilla beans are full of vanillin, a compound that has shown promise as an antioxidant. But that isn’t the only antioxidant found in the flavoring. Although not as powerful as vanillin, vanillic acid offers many of the same protections against oxidative stress.

Vanilla Beans May Have Anti-Inflammatory Properties

While inflammation can and does happen intermittently throughout life, chronic inflammation can trigger potentially serious health issues. One way to help reduce that risk is to focus on eating foods and practicing healthy behaviors that minimize the potential for inflammation in the first place. 

At least one of the compounds found in vanilla beans, vanillin, has shown potential for reducing inflammatory markers and related issues. Again, these trials need to be repeated using human subjects to establish a more conclusive link.

Vanilla Beans May Help Boost Brain Health

Both vanillin and vanillic acid may also function as neuroprotectives, which are compounds that can help protect the nervous system. While studies on these effects have only been performed on mice, they show plenty of potential.

If you’re still in school, using vanilla beans may also be able to help you on your next big exam. If you smell vanilla while you’re studying and then wear a little bit of it when you go in to take your exam, it may help you with your memory recall. 

What You Should Know About Vanilla Bean

As we’ve said, even with as much potential as vanilla beans may have, human trials are critical to verify the research. In addition, it’s important to note that the amounts of vanilla bean used in the research that has been performed were much larger (and more concentrated) than what is in most people’s regular diets. 

However, vanilla beans are safe for most people in most situations. While you should always consult your medical provider before starting any new supplement, especially if you’re already taking prescription medication, vanilla beans are usually fairly benign.  

An important caveat is that at least a small amount of alcohol is present when using vanilla extract in larger quantities. If you’re trying to avoid any products with alcohol, you may want to steer clear.

How to Add Vanilla Bean to Your Diet

Vanilla bean is easy to add to the diet, giving your food a uniquely delicious flavor. Using the flavoring can even reduce the amount of sugar you consume, as vanilla can trick the taste buds into thinking they are eating something sweeter than they are. 

This benefit is unlike any other spice, and any way that you can reduce your sugar consumption is a huge plus. 

Vanilla bean is also included on the list of Modified Paleo Diet seasonings, along with ginger, nutmeg, lavender, and many more. For an easy way to try vanilla bean, make a smoothie. 

We recommend our almond chai smoothie with other paleo-friendly ingredients like raw almond milk and Medjool dates. 

If you want to use vanilla to make something a little more substantial, add a vanilla bean or pure vanilla extract to granola, quick bread, cakes, or any other baking recipe. They fit perfectly into any plant-based diet, making them incredibly adaptable without adding unwanted calories or animal byproducts.

Vanilla Beans Can Also Be Used for Aromatherapy

Vanilla doesn’t just taste great; it can also be used to help you de-stress through aromatherapy. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, aromatherapy involves using certain scents (mostly in essential oil form) to help provoke feelings and emotions.

Each scent is connected with a specific set of those feelings, which helps guide people to find their optimal fragrance. 

Vanilla is one of the most popular essential oils on the market. However, you don’t need to spend money on an essential oil if you have vanilla beans accessible to you in your kitchen cabinets. If you’re feeling stressed or too tightly wound up, head to your kitchen and take a few deep breaths of vanilla bean (or vanilla extract). Inhaling the scent of vanilla is thought to have a calming effect, and people often use it to help them relax.

In Summary

Paying attention to every part of your diet is essential. Nowhere is this more clear than the potential benefits certain flavorings and spices can add to your life.

Authentic vanilla beans and the pure vanilla extract made from those beans may potentially have several positive health impacts on your life. While those links need to be more conclusively proven with human-centered research, there’s no arguing that adding vanilla bean lends a specific taste and sophistication level even to the most basic recipe. 

Sources:

Healthy Directions Staff Editor