Looming vanilla shortage arrives just in time to ruin ice cream season

Vanilla Shortage Could Ruin Ice Cream Season
Vanilla Shortage Could Ruin Ice Cream Season

Get ready to scream: An especially bad harvest has caused the price of vanilla beans to climb nearly 150 percent this year in Madagascar, the world's largest producer of the sought-after ingredient, and the food industry warns the leap may take its toll on the frozen-foods aisle.

The shortage didn't exactly come out of nowhere. Harvesting vanilla is a drawn-out process as pods must cure for months, and prices have been elevated for some time, but as The Guardianexplains, the problem's worsening as existing supplies start to run out. The prices of beans are at near-record highs — $205 per kilogram, up from $84 last year and $20 in 2011. With the industry paying more than double for extract, experts worry that's going to translate to price increases at right about the time people decide it's ice-cream weather.

Worse, the problem has sort of become circular: Higher prices are tempting farmers into picking beans prematurely. When they do that, flavors diminish, making buyers pickier. Thieves are also exacerbating that issue, and then there's an unrelated problem caused by the industry-wide shift to natural ingredients. And companies that used to get around price spikes by subbing in artificial substitutes aren't necessarily doing that anymore, thanks to everyone's desire to eat more "natural" food.

The good news is that Madagascar's 2016 crop seems to be off to a good start, but that won't help prices until later this year, and there's an entire summer in between, so you may have to look forward to lots of Italian ices as the weather warms up.