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Scientists to put real vanilla in ice cream

A science institute is working to develop a high-yield variety vanilla and bring down its prohibitive price.

india Updated: Dec 06, 2006 09:27 IST

Millions who love vanilla ice cream and relish its synthetic flavours may soon get to taste the real thing if a science institute succeeds in developing a high-yield variety vanilla and bring down its prohibitive price.

"If we succeed in doing our bit to make it cost-effective, I am sure Indian ice cream manufacturers would start using real vanillin — an extract from the vanilla plant — instead of the synthetically prepared vanilla flavour commonly used today," National Botanic Research Institute (NBRI) director Rakesh Tuli said in Lucknow.

Bulk of the vanilla ice cream in the country is produced with an artificial flavour created by blending scores of chemicals. "That is entirely because of the huge difference in the cost of the real vanilla extract and flavours," he pointed out.

"Most of the world's vanilla is grown in Madagascar. The cost of natural vanilla in international markets is around $20,000 per pound compared to the synthetically prepared version which is available for about $6," Tuli said.

While the plant has been grown successfully in some states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala from where its extract is also being exported, the overall output in India is extremely low.

"India contributes barely 1-2 per cent to the global vanilla demand of some 2,000 tonnes", Tuli pointed out.

"We could do much better, provided we could improve upon the quality and overcome some existing handicaps. And the biggest stumbling block is the fact that the Indian vanilla plant does not undergo natural pollination because of the structure of the flower.

"So vanillin growers are required to provide manual assistance to bring about artificial pollination. Since the process is cumbersome and slow, the yield too remains quite low," the scientist added.

"Our main focus, therefore, is on reshaping the structure of the flower to facilitate natural pollination properties in this plant. Once we achieve that, India could well come up on the world vanilla map," he said.

The exercise at the country's leading botanical research centre began by procuring the original plants from Madagascar.

"Vanilla requires very humid conditions for good growth, so at NBRI in Lucknow, we have created artificial conditions to maintain germ-plasma of the vanilla plant," Tuli said.

"We still have a long way to go but I am sure our final outcome will create a landmark in India's botanical research."

Tuli is hopeful that ice cream lovers will be delighted with its output.

"Not many people are aware that there is a world of difference between vanilla ice cream and vanilla flavoured ice cream. Most ice creams we get in India are artificially flavoured with the vanilla flavour drawn from certain by-products of the paper industry," he said.

Tuli said the natural extract would not only be much tastier but also healthier.

"The artificial flavour — like any other synthetic product — is bound to have its own hazards but the natural extract would be free from side effects," he said.