Among the 105 species in the genus Vanilla, only three are grown commercially for their pods. Vanilla planifolia is by far the most widely cultivated species. Following the long and arduous process know as curing, the vanilla bean produces a flavour compound known as vanillin, which is responsible for the familiar aroma of vanilla. The precursor of this molecule, named glucovanillin is mostly present in the seeds and in the oily liquid that surrounds them.
In terms of cost per weight, vanilla is among the most expensive agricultural products in the world, notably because its production is extremely labour intensive. For this reason artificial vanilla extract is much less costly (about 200 times less) and its global production is about 20 times higher than that of the natural product. Artificial vanilla extract however lacks some of the subtle flavours of authentic vanilla, which is the result of no less than 200 different chemical compounds, among which vanillin is the dominant molecule.
Vanilla (natural or artificial) is used in a wide range of products including chocolate, soda, desserts, ice cream, cocktails and cosmetics (mainly soap and perfume). It is also used for its medicinal properties, to stimulate the nervous system, counter depression, aid in digestion, as an antiseptic, an aphrodisiac or to treat rheumatism.
However, one must take precautions when handling the plant of harvesting its pods as the sap contains calcium oxalate and can cause sever dermatitis.