It is. Used in earlier times to flavor the chocolate beverages of the Aztecs of Mexico, vanilla is extracted from the beans of a tropical vine which attaches its little rootless stem to trees (see photo). Incidentally, fresh vanilla beans have no aroma, though it contains basic components of the chemical vanillin which ultimately provides the characteristic flavor associated with vanilla. To derive this extract, the beans have to be cured. The time-honored method is to expose the harvested beans to sunshine and keeping them in sweat-boxes at night. The process, lasting about 10 days, brings about fermentation in the beans and they become chocolate brown in color. The curing leads to the formation of the volatile oil vanillin. The beans are then dried for about four months. The proportion of vanillin is seldom more then 2%, but it is highly concentrated form. After the dried beans are crushed the vanillin is extracted by alcohol. The eventual flavoring-vanilla-is 35% ethyl alcohol and is used in a variety of sweet foods and beverages such as ice-cream, milk-shakes, chocolate and cakes.
Worldwide, it is the most preferred flavoring and a large quantity of vanilla is made nowadays from commercially synthesized vanillin.