Food and Nutrition

Vanilla Is a Potent Anti-Inflammatory Agent That’s Been Shown To Boost Your Mood—Here Are 5 (Zero Sugar) Ways To Eat More of It

Emily Laurence

Photo: Stocksy/Ina Peters
Despite it being one of *the* most popular flavors of all time, vanilla gets a rep for being plain or boring. Let's get something straight right now: vanilla is bursting with natural flavor. The combination of floral and caramel notes are so pronounced that it consumes the senses with just a whiff. Its versatile flavor pairs perfectly with sweet, savory, and salty foods—reducing it down to a 'meh' ice cream flavor is a major mistake we'd like to put to rest.

Vanilla's many perks extend beyond taste—it's full of health benefits, too. But before we get into that, it's helpful to know what exactly vanilla is. Vanilla is a flowering plant that's part of the orchid family. Native to Central and South America, it was first cultivated by the Aztecs. Originally, they combined it with cacao, drinking the rich mixture as a sweet beverage. When Europeans discovered vanilla, it became a hot commodity—even more than chocolate. Europeans used vanilla to make ice cream and other sweet treats, similar to how it is used today.

Vanilla is not easy to source and because of that, it is expensive; in fact, it is the second priciest spice in the world. Vanilla flowers are open for just 24 hours and if they aren't pollinated by bees or hummingbirds during this time, they die. But if pollinated successfully, fruit-holding pods form, aka vanilla beans. The vanilla beans are picked, soaked in water, and left in the sun to dry.

There's a difference between vanilla beans and vanilla extract, aka the liquid in a little brown bottle that's likely in your pantry right now. Vanilla extract is made by soaking the ground vanilla beans in alcohol and water. (You can also buy alcohol-free vanilla extract, which uses glycerin, a clear plant-based oil, instead.) The closer you get to consuming vanilla straight from its pods—in other words, the less processed it is—the more of its health benefits you'll consume.

Now that you've been schooled on the history of vanilla, let's get into the benefits.

5 vanilla benefits, according to a registered dietitian

As previously explained, vanilla beans and liquid vanilla extract commonly used for baking are not exactly the same. Vanilla extract does contain vanilla, which means the benefits are extended to the extract as well. However, the more processed vanilla is, the less pronounced the benefits are. Additionally, some vanilla extract producers use heat as part of the extraction process, which lessens some of the nutritional value. For this reason, if you can find cold-pressed vanilla extract, it will have more health benefits. The perks below pertain to pure, natural vanilla.

1. It can positively affect your mood.

Even just the smell of vanilla is beneficial. One mouse study showed that smelling vanilla can help lessen depression and anxiety. "This is interesting. Vanillin, a phenol component of vanilla, has anti-anxiety effects in animal studies," says registered dietitian Malena Perdomo, RD.

Another study extends this connection to humans. When given vanilla to smell, the most common feelings it evoked were happiness, followed by relaxation. Perdomo says that researchers don't seem to know yet why exactly vanilla is connected to feeling cheerful and more relaxed, but the connection does seem to be there.

2. Vanilla is anti-inflammatory.

Perdomo points out that vanilla is full antioxidants, which benefit the entire body. "Antioxidants have many beneficial effects because they are related to anti-inflammation effects in our body," she says. "Our body uses antioxidants to protect cells against free radicals scavengers which can cause tissue damage." This means that adding a hint of vanilla to your morning coffee ups the amount of antioxidants in your mug.

3. It is also antimicrobial.

Scientific research shows that vanilla is also antimicrobial, which means it helps kill and stop the growth of harmful bacteria. In one scientific study, vanilla helped protect against the growth of E. coli. While this doesn't mean you should add vanilla to anything you're worried could give you food poisoning, it is an interesting connection worth noting and is one reason Perdomo says vanilla is often used as a natural food preservative.

4. Vanilla could be good for your gut.

There is some data suggesting that vanilla can play a role in supporting the gut. "An animal study showed that vanillin—one of the components of vanilla—improved the gut microbiota of obese mice who were fed a high-fat diet," Perdomo says. "Specifically, it did this by increasing short-chain fatty acids production which are beneficial for the gut. It also reduced other bacteria associated with obesity and others known to be inflammatory." This is another connection that needs more research in humans, but an interesting connection to be aware of.

5. It supports brain health.

Remember how vanilla is high in antioxidants? That's good news for your brain, too. Scientific studies show that vanilla is neuroprotective, helping to reduce brain cell damage.

There is a caveat to all the vanilla benefits highlighted here and that is how vanilla is used. Vanilla is a common ingredient in baked goods and desserts, and often these foods contain added sugar as well. Added sugar is nutrient-void and can be harmful for health. The good news is that because vanilla is so flavorful, you really don't need to add sugar to make it taste good. Below are some recipes ideas that use vanilla in a way that enhances its health benefits instead of hinders them.

5 ways to cook with vanilla

1. Vanilla birthday cake

This dairy- and gluten-free birthday cake recipe proves that you absolutely don't need sugar to make a delicious birthday cake. The vanilla gives plenty of sweetness on its own, along with honey, which is used as a natural alternative to white sugar.

2. Bliss balls

As the vanilla benefits above highlighted, vanilla can have a positive effect on mood. There's another herb, mucuna, that has this effect as well and in the bliss balls recipe in the video above, their powers are combined. Also in this recipe are oats and cashews, which add plenty of fiber and protein.

vanilla benefits tea
Photo: The Minimalist Vegan

3. Cinnamon and vanilla chai tea

Curling up with a hot vanilla chai tea is one way to really reap its relaxing benefits. This recipe includes other herbs that have their own health benefits: cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, cloves, ginger, and peppercorns. Combined, its layered taste is warming and sweet.

Get the recipe: cinnamon and vanilla chai tea

4. Chamomile vanilla ice cream

Being incorporated into ice cream is a classic use for vanilla. Here, it gets combined with chamomile, another herb strongly linked to relaxation. Talk about the perfect bedtime snack!

vanilla pudding
Photo: The Healthy Maven

5. Vanilla chia pudding

Want to start your day with vanilla instead of ending it that way? (Or hey, why not both.) Bookmark this recipe to try for breakfast. It shows how to make a classic vanilla chia pudding with just four ingredients. The chia seeds are a great source of fiber. Add nuts on top to up the protein in this simple meal.

Get the recipe: vanilla chia pudding 

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to put vanilla to delicious use without adding sugar to the mix—and these are just a few of your options. Consuming vanilla regularly will impact your health in many different ways. Just be sure to use pure vanilla to get the maximum benefits, or better yet, use it straight from the pods. With that in mind, you're adding a sweet touch to your meals—in more ways than one.

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