Pretty Soon Your Vanilla Flavoring Will Come From... Sawdust

It's not uncommon to hear bibliophiles and pedants waxing poetic about the wonderful and incomparable "old book smell," but tiresome as these tirades may be, it turns out they might actually be on to something. Thanks to a recent scientific study, that same, vanilla-tinged aroma wafting off the pages of old tomes is now the most efficient way to flavor our ice cream.

Scientists have long known that lignin, a biopolymer found in wood pulp (think sawdust), produces vanillin when it oxidizes—unfortunately the only previously known process, though cheap, used sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphide, both highly corrosive mixtures. Plus, the non-vanillin byproducts of this method have to be neutralized with strong acids before they can be properly disposed of. In other words, that method sucks and is consequently rarely used.

The way we do synthesize vanillin currently uses the petrochemical guaiacolis, which is less environmentally damaging—but pricey.

But thanks to ionic liquids, which are salts in liquid form, Ahmad Shamsuir and DK Abdullah of the University Putra Malaysia may have finally settled on the best of both worlds. Although most ionic liquids are hugely toxic—a quality generally not ideal for things we stuff in our mouths—by playing around with the cations and anions, the scientists were able to majorly reduce its reactivity and make it safer. By dissolving lignin from a nearby saw mill and bubbling oxygen up through it, they were able to identify the vanillin using infrared analysis and separate it from its (relatively harmless) co-oxidation byproducts.

Easy, environmentally-friendly, and equally importantly, cheap. Vanillin flavoring is ten times more in demand than its natural counterpart, so if we want to keep the artificially flavored vanilla products flowing freely, a process that cuts down on dangerous waste and saves money is huge. So the next time you're enjoying vanilla-anything, just remember, that wonderful vanilla taste is probably all thanks to delicious, delicious sawdust. [MIT Tech Review]

Image: Shutterstock/Virunja