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Test Tube Vanilla: It Tastes Good, And It's Cheap


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TEST-TUBE VANILLA: IT TASTES GOOD, AND IT'S CHEAP

Real vanilla--the liquid flavoring extracted from the bean--is expensive stuff, costing about $1,200 a pound. The synthetic vanilla cooked up in chemistry labs and used in many mass-market products is far cheaper, but it tastes flat by comparison. Now, there's a compromise: a cultured form of natural vanilla.

Escagenetics Corp., a biotechnology company in San Carlos, Calif., has won a patent on a process for "growing" vanilla in test tubes. This is the first patent for a flavor developed from so-called plant-tissue culture. Escagenetics also uses the technique to extract taxol, an ovarian-cancer-fighting drug, from the bark of the yew tree. The method relies on the fact that every plant cell can reproduce any of the plant's functions. So with the proper nutrients and conditions, Escagenetics can coax cell cultures to jump straight to the vanilla-producing stage without first growing roots, leaves, and beans. The result, called phytovanilla, isn't quite as rich as the flavoring that beans produce, but it is tastier than artificial vanilla--and it costs only $200 a pound. Unilever PLC has signed an agreement to make and market the phytovanilla.EDITED BY ROBERT BUDERI


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