This is one of the organic compounds responsible for vanilla flavor and is the main component of vanilla extract.
It’s an organic crystal that forms on the outside of the vanilla bean. Although it does occur naturally, a cured vanilla pod only contains about 2% dry weight of vanillin. The extraction of naturally occurring vanillin is not only expensive, but highly inefficient.
The demand for vanilla flavoring has always outweighed the possible supply. The target markets are the ice-cream and chocolate industries, making up almost 75% of the market. Smaller industries include confections, baked goods, perfume, medicines and cleaning products. In 2001, the annual demand or vanillin was 12,000 tons, but only 1800 tons of natural vanillin was produced. The remaining vanillin was chemically synthesized vanillin.
Although the chemical structure of synthetically produced vanillin and naturally-occurring vanillin are identical, it’s just a cheap alternative for the real thing.
If vanillin is listed as an ingredient, it’s most likely that it’s synthetically made. If the product contained naturally occurring vanillin, they call it vanilla.
Today, a small amount of synthetic vanillin is made from with lignin wastes, a by-product of the paper/wood pulp industries. However, most of the synthetic vanillin is made from guaiacol, which is a petrochemical precursor.