Vanilla—It Ain’t White

What happened to vanilla? Seriously. When was it that vanilla came to be associated with a shade of the color white, and an adjective describing “bland”—and why? Who would commit such an injustice to a product of the beautiful Vanilla planifolia (a member of the orchidaceae family)? And what, you’re probably thinking, does this have to do with policy? Well, quite a bit.

The history of vanillaproduction” started in the geographic locale of the Aztec Empire (previously controlled by the Teotihuacán and then the Toltecs), in what we now know as Mexico (North America) and was cultivated by the Totonac. With the arrival of the Spanish into this region (circa 1520) and other areas in the Western Hemishpere, the Old World and New World underwent drastic changes. The movement of ideas, disease, precious metals, technologies, foodstuffs, and spices, et al., which would come to be known as the Columbian Exchange, dramatically changed the course of both hemispheres (this period also saw the annihilation/genocide of millions of indigenous peoples and several empires, by Columbus, Cortés, and other conquistadors, and their men). And the “exchange” of vanilla, to the Old World, was the first step in vanilla’s story of becoming a colour no longer tied to the plant’s origins. 

Fast forward 200 years and we might find the next clue in the color mix-up. Ice cream was gaining in popularity in 18th century Europe (according to historians), and when a fearless culinary madame/monsieur mixed vanilla into a batch of ice cream, I believe the “white” fallacy was born. As the base of ice cream is, yep, you guessed it, cream, the thick and fatty substance that is strangely similar in color to today’s perceived shade of vanilla, it would make sense that over time people eating vanilla ice cream would wrongly assume that vanilla was white. But this doesn’t help explain the other part—bland, plain, blah, meh.

Over the next couple of centuries, ice cream became America’s favorite dessert (even in ice cream deserts). And naturally, the colors that were most commonly associated with the frozen treat: white (vanilla), brown (chocolate), and pink (strawberry), also came to have additional significance.  Here’s where we may find part of the background on vanilla’s “plain Jane” problem. Whether it was due to the seemingly more decadent taste of chocolate (and all that went along with the desire to have something “other/different”), or the memories of a dish of freshly churned ice cream with just picked wild strawberries mixed in, after a Fourth-of-July celebration, the widespread availability of “regular” vanilla didn’t seem to evoke the same type of emotion. Which leads me to believe that the passage of time, combined with the desire to believe what is placed in front of one’s face, has led to the misconception of vanilla’s True Colors. As a society, we believe vanilla is both white, and boring, neither of which bear any resemblance to the true character of this most flavorful and versatile spice.

So now that we’ve determined who and what is responsible for this catastrophe of maligned color designation, lets talk about other instances where time and indifference have contributed to beliefs that are neither true nor sensical (which is akin to sensible). And then, I’ll discuss the importance of truth in labeling and the deleterious effects of buying products that are not what we think they are (this is where policy comes into play).

We currently accept a great deal of what is presented as fact, so long as the presenter is acceptable to our ears and eyes. The effects of such marketing/propaganda have helped shape current debates, policies, historical inaccuracies and general attitudes. Ask 10 people why the U.S. Civil War was fought and you’re likely to get one of three answers:  Three might say slavery, two might look at you like your speaking Shyriiwook, and the other five would likely say States Rights. Both answers are correct, in a way. However, many people still believe that the war was primarily about States Rights. And while we can say it was related to that idea, we must explain that the one right that was by far the most important (to the men who controlled the States), was the right to own human beings (slavery). Some “smarty pants” might spout off a list of rights that includes: taxation, tariffs, trade, freedom from federal powers, blah blah blah (they sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher). Yet, they leave out the fact that the Bill of Rights, specifically, the 10th Amendment, covered many of the State’s concerns. And, when one looks more closely at each of the “concerns”, they all have direct links to slavery, i.e. the South’s primary economic driver. So while this long held belief (State’s rights), as a stand alone argument, is essentially wrong, incorrect, untrue, a lie, we are still talking about it as if there’s some doubt as to the veracity of the real reason for our Civil War, the enslavement of human beings.

A short list of other time-tested fallacious fabrications, fictions, falsifications, fibs, and falsehoods includes: ♠ Jesus was “White”—kind of like vanilla, Jesus was a darker shade than the one he is often purported to resemble; ♣ the term “race” as used to describe different ethnicities—just plain wrong; ♥ we don’t lose 50% of our body heat through our noggin (this is not an excuse to go without a hat when it’s -20°); ♦ trickle-down economics will lift all boats—think about it, if you could make 10 million dollars a year by working more hours or fewer, which would you choose? Well, wealthy business people think the same, if they can work less, hire fewer people, invest less capital in new ventures and still make the same amount of money, why bother with all the extra nonsense. They have vacation homes to visit (not just 1 little cabin in the Northwoods), yachts to party on, polo matches to watch, and politicians to influence…they’re busy folks. So lets get on with the process of making income/wealth inequality grow; ♠ and while we’re on the topic of finance, “money can’t buy happiness”—I’d be happy to make a wager with anybody who’s looking to lose some money. Sure, after a certain amount of wealth is earned, we wouldn’t expect to gain as much “utility” from an extra million or two; but for anyone who lives paycheck to paycheck, or is unemployed and relying on the social insurance programs administered by government agencies, money can and does buy happiness. ♣ and a couple more recent illustrations of this phenomenon: ♥ you have to be smart to be successful—George W. Bush (I’m not hating, just pointing out the obvious); ♦ and, guns are just tools, like shovels, rakes, garden hoes, etc.—guns were designed with one purpose in mind, and it wasn’t skeet shooting. Guns were the next big thing in the evolution of individually controlled killing implements. While many people use them for shooting clay pigeons, beer bottles, pumpkins, and the dust off of a fly’s wing, they are still designed to end a life, be it human or animal. That, I would argue, is a far cry from what most “tools” are designed to accomplish.

Now then, let’s look at the problems associated with products that are labeled as (ex.) ƒ(x) = 36x + 5, but what you actually end up with is pistachio pudding. What happened? How did that function of (x), that I bought with my hard-earned money, turn out to be pistachio pudding? Well, maybe the celebrity endorser pitching the product wasn’t being completely honest with you. Or maybe you wanted to believe that you could get a real Rolex for $150. because that guy on the corner with the table of nice watches really needed the money and that’s the only reason he was selling it so cheap. Sometimes, nobody is any worse for the deal. The knockoff Prada handbag made the buyer happy to have a replica that looked legit, and the salesperson made some money. The problems occur when you are unknowingly endangering yourself or others.

Do you remember the toxic drywall that was imported from China and caused (and is still causing) plumbing, electrical, and health problems across the South? How about the formaldehyde trailers that were delivered to displaced Gulf Coast residents after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in 2005 (because that’s just what every dislocated person wants after a catastrophic event, more health problems)? Ever asked for a Coke at a restaurant and gotten a Pepsi, or is it Royal Crown, no, wait…it’s “cola”, something sharing a few of Coke’s qualities, carbonated water, caramel color, caffeine, but definitely not the same as Coke. Big or small, these things matter. When we’re told we are buying, or being provided with, one product, and later find that we’ve gotten something that is close to what we assumed we were getting, but not quite the same (and in some cases extremely different), we have reason for concern if not downright outrage. Sure, the generic cola won’t kill us (we hope), but if you’ve been looking forward to lunch (at the place your project manager recommended), thinking about that patty melt with bacon, perfectly deep fried tater-tots, and the crisp refreshing bite that hits the back of the palette after taking a big swig of real Coke, and instead you get a lackluster mouthful of overly saccharine cola, your lunch break letdown won’t ruin the rest of your day (your coworker did that by accidentally squeezing the jelly out of his donut and onto your shirt sleeve), but you might return to the office feeling a bit more deflated than when you left, and now you have to go into a post-lunch meeting with the same project manager, the one who tells you to smile more, with one less reason to smile and one more reason to leave anonymous hateful little notes on his desk.

Again, a short list of items that you may want to double check prior to purchasing (or maybe you like to live dangerously): ♠ fish—the mislabeling of seafood is bad for three reasons: you might be paying too much for an inferior product that doesn’t taste as good, the people working on the fishing boats are enslaved, and you could be unwittingly eating a fish that is currently over-fished/not sustainable; ♣ sunglasses—if you’re not concerned about your eyes long-term viability, don’t worry about this; conversely, if you hope to keep your sight top notch into your golden years (so you can watch the paint dry), make sure you’re getting the real deal; ♥ fragrances/cosmetics—some of the chemicals etc. that are being used in the fakes are toxic and/or gross; ♦ pharmaceuticals—no commentary necessary here, but, think about the cost and the potential consequences of getting a drug that is potentially the same but due to lack of oversight the dosage might be high, or low, and make you more sick, or simply fail to cure what ails you; ♠ flea & tick products—many are good, some are not, and your pets are not the only family members that can be affected.

Mislabeling of products, and inaccurate classifications run the gamut from “no big deal” to “holy shit, that coulda killed me”; these are issues I think about when I hear people relating boring and white (like this guy appears) to vanilla. Vanilla is anything but boring and most certainly not even close to any shade of white. And while the vanilla farmers of Mexico, Madagascar, Comoros, et al. may not care what you believe about vanilla, so long as you’re buying it, I think of the vanilla lie as a type of “gateway drug” to believing, and even promoting, other untrue and possibly slanderous/historically inaccurate theories. Fertilizers, pesticides, nutritional supplements, comestibles, and other products are regularly found to be noncompliant with generally accepted consumer product safety measures/standards.

To be clear, I know that vanilla ice cream, frosting (butter cream or others), protein powders, yogurt, etc., etc., are shades of white (and sometimes very bland) due to other ingredients. However, these products, and others, have coloured our perceptions about actual vanilla characteristics. When we make assumptions about something based on false pretenses, we fail to consider the background as well as the implications and ramifications for future generations. Policies that fail to address flawed or distorted belief systems (thank you South CaroliniansGov. Haley) and overlook misleading (intentional or otherwise) product statements can have serious negative consequences, both known and unknown.

Anytime someone is trying to sell you something, or sell anyone else something, take a piece of advice from Suzanne Massie, “Trust but verify”.

Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black
Vanilla Bean/Pod, not white, more deep, dark, rich, brownish black

Owl City – Vanilla Twilight

If you’d like to see the difference real vanilla can make in a simple way, buy a vanilla Coke (if you can find it) and make a vanilla Coke using Mexican Coke. The flavor differential is significant.

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Bent on making public education more equitable, economic opportunities more widely available, the general public more empathetic, and food more tasty. Rich experiences in Inner-city public education, rural America (farm to factory), restaurant industry professional, and animal & plant caretaker extraordinaire. 11 States and counting.