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Scientists Have Created A Way To Turn Waste Plastic Into Vanilla Flavoring

Vanilla is probably the most common flavor in the world. In a lot of cases, "vanilla" even means "plain," like in ice cream or cookies. But as common as the flavor is, it isn't all natural. In fact, most vanilla flavoring is artificial.

That doesn't necessarily mean it's bad, though. In fact, scientists are developing a way to create vanilla flavoring from waste plastic.

Is artificial vanilla a problem?

Unsplash | Jocelyn Morales

Most of us grew up with artificial vanilla flavoring. If you've ever had the real deal, you can tell that the two flavors are nearly identical.

But in recent years, companies have decided to do away with the artificial kind, opting to go natural, Scientific American states.

Companies seem to think so.

It all started in 2015, with Nestle announcing it would eliminate all artificial flavoring (including vanilla) from its product line. Other companies started following suit.

But is natural vanilla a problem?

Going natural isn't a bad thing, but it is a problem. See, there just isn't enough naturally grown vanilla in the world to support the demands of every major food company.

Natural vanilla isn't very abundant, only being grown in a handful of places around the world. With shortages and growing demand, natural vanilla is only increasing in price.

There are a lot of issues with the real stuff.

Natural vanilla flavoring may make food companies look good on paper, but using it just isn't sustainable. That's why it's important to make artificial vanilla flavoring. At least, it is if we want to continue to have vanilla-flavored everything.

And then there's something seemingly unrelated: plastic.

Unsplash | tanvi sharma

That brings us to this important scientific breakthrough. The natural vanilla shortage is a problem, but probably not as big of one as the plastic pollution problem.

Luckily, as the Guardian reports, scientists have come up with a solution that can help out both of these problems.

Plastic bottles are a huge environmental issue.

Every minute, approximately one million plastic bottles are sold worldwide. Only around 14% of them will get recycled, and even then, they lose most of their value after being used.

Meanwhile, artificial vanilla isn't so innocent.

Unsplash | Chris LeBoutillier

On the other hand, with artificial vanilla making up most of the global vanilla supply (even with companies' natural initiatives), knowing that 85% of artificial vanilla is derived from fossil fuels is also troubling.

But all hope is not lost.

Unsplash | Charles Deluvio

Thanks to some mutant enzymes developed by scientists, they've found a process to break down plastic bottles, from polyethylene terephthalate polymer, to TA (terephthalic acid, the more basic form).

That TA can be converted into vanillin (the artificial version of vanilla) using bugs that further break the chemical down (which is not as gross as it sounds).

The process is kind of genius.

So far, the research has yielded some pretty promising results. Using a similar process to brewing beer, scientists were able to convert 79% of TA into vanillin, and hope to be able to tweak the process to increase that number.

And it'll be helpful in so many ways.

This is so important because it directly impacts our plastic pollution problem in a positive way. It also has the added benefit of being a sustainable way to combat the vanilla shortage. Talk about two birds with one stone!

h/t: The Guardian, Scientific American.

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