The Worldwide Vanilla Shortage Is Coming

Vanilla, we hardly knew ye.
And now we’re heading into a worldwide vanilla shortage.

Yields are down by as much as 90% in every one of the world’s vanilla-growing regions. Supplies are dwindling and nervous buyers are bidding wholesale prices up into the stratosphere. You won’t have vanilla to kick around anymore.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!
In a world of chocolate this and chocolate that, vanilla’s always been the quiet one. It’s plain vanilla, a name that’s synonymous with dullness. In finance, vanilla is the most basic investment with no special features; in sex talk, vanilla refers to the straightforward, routine variety. It’s the missionary position of flavors, the Treasury bond paying a reliable 3½%, the mousy girl with glasses that sat in the second row of English class and edited the yearbook.

Vanilla is the girl next door to chocolate’s Casanova.
It’s not a rich, dark seducer that can send you into a swoon, but something sweet and familiar. It can only be fully appreciated with closer attention to nuance and depth. It possesses complexity and exoticism that need to be teased out, but it’s well worth the effort.

Vanilla adds dimension and aroma to recipes. It infuses baked goods with a deep mellow sweetness and pulls out tasty brown sugar and caramel notes. It cuts acidity in savory foods (try it in tomatoey dishes like chili or spaghetti sauce). Coca Cola isn’t Coca Cola without vanilla extract (witness the vanilla-less New Coke debacle), and even chocolate needs vanilla to bring out its chocolate flavor.

What does the coming vanilla shortage mean?
So far, about 40% of this year’s vanilla harvest has shipped, and it amounted to just 1,000 tons of pods. The year’s total will clearly fall far short of the 6,000 tons that shipped in total during 2011. Most of the early crop was sold at prices locked in by contract at $40 per kilo, but prices for much of the remaining crop will float at free market rates. The last time we saw a harvest failure in 2004, vanilla prices climbed from $25 per kilo to $500.

The U.S. is the world’s biggest consumer of vanilla, gobbling up more than half of global production. Even if we could buy up the entire 2012 harvest, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. With maybe 60% of all vanilla expected to ship to us, it will be in very short supply.

Expect to see higher prices for candy and baked goods and more use of synthetic vanillin and other artificial flavors. Ice cream manufacturers are expected to be hit hardest, especially in the premium category where natural vanilla flavoring is crucial. And for all our talk of chocolate, plain vanilla is the perennial favorite, accounting for nearly one-third of all ice cream sold.