MUNsolved Mysteries

(March 6, 1997, Gazette)

Have a burning question pertaining to science, engineering, medicine, the arts, music, humanities, social sciences, physical education, or any other field? Let us know; we'll do our best to find the answers for you, drawing upon the expertise of members of the university community.

Joyce MacKinnon of the Division of University Relations' Publications Office wonders how certain flavors and colors become connected. She sent this question via the Internet:

"If vanilla beans/pods are dark brown, why do we represent the vanilla flavor with the color white -- as in ice cream, jelly beans, candy, et cetera? And, if the end product of vanilla is 'white,' then why bother adding brown color to artificial vanilla flavoring (the stuff you use when baking)? Why not filter out the color from pure vanilla extract?"

Dr. Fereidoon Shahidi, Biochemistry, knows a great deal about how foods are processed, and he provided the answer:

"Vanilla is an extract obtained from unripe fruit of Vanilla planifolia. The main flavor-active component in vanilla is vanillin," he explained. "Vanillin itself is a white-beige colored powder with a pleasant aroma. However, the extracts available in supermarkets -- which are generally alcohol-based, have a brown color, and this is due to the co-extraction of resinous material from the beans into the solvent. The extract may be used in foods like ice cream, or vanillin itself may be added to the formulation. At any rate, the amount required to impart the specific flavor of vanilla to products is minute. So, it is the dominance of the white color of milk in vanilla ice cream that makes our judgement blurred, even if a brown extract was used."

We welcome questions of all flavors! Send yours to MUNsolved Mysteries, Gazette, Arts and Administration Building, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, Nfld., A1C 5S7; e-mail, or fax 709-737-8699. Please include your name and telephone number.