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Vanilla is one of the most popular flavours worldwide. It comes from the fruit of the vanilla plant that contains beans or seeds from where the vanilla extracts are obtained. Vanillin is the main substance of the vanilla bean extract responsible for the characteristic sweet smelling flavour of vanilla.

Although vanillin can be extracted from vanilla plants, this is quite expensive. Therefore, artificial vanilla flavouring made up of synthetic vanillin or chemically modified ethylvanillin is produced for commercial use and has a stronger flavour.

General uses

As a vanilla flavour ingredient, vanillin has a wide range of uses within the food, drink, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and fragrance industries.

Reported tobacco industry uses

Tobacco manufacturers use vanillin as a flavouring material in cigarettes. Vanillin (or other compounds that release vanillin) can be added to the tobacco, cigarette paper or filter.

Vanillin can make up to 0.05% of the total weight of the tobacco used in one cigarette. Lower levels of ethylvanillin are added due to its stronger flavour.

Harmful health effects

Vanillin is generally regarded as safe for use in food and cosmetics. However, this does not suggest it is safe when inhaled from smoking cigarettes.Vanillin is known to release several substances when burnt. These include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which have been classed as human cancer causing agents by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a leading expert cancer organisation).

Vanillin is also indirectly harmful as it masks the harshness of tobacco smoke, making smoking easier, which thereby encourages the smoking habit. This ultimately causes smokers to be exposed to higher levels of the toxic substances in cigarette smoke.

Vanilla is a popular flavour in many products and tobacco manufacturers use this fact to make the cigarette more desirable, especially to young or first time smokers. Non-smokers or bystanders may be more tolerant towards smokers who smoke cigarettes with a vanilla aroma because of its less offensive and familiar smell.

Overall, by adding more desirable flavours such as vanillin to cigarettes tobacco manufacturers make it easier for smokers to become addicted.

This text of the factsheet on the tobacco additive vanillin was written by the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). You can find the original in English on the RIVM website 

This initiative has received funding from the European Union in the framework of the Health Programme.