This Express Lane is about Coke, Madagascar and vanilla beans.

According to the article, when the rollout of new Coke was announced in April, the island of Madagascar, which produces 80 percent of the world's vanilla beans, was not pleased: demand for the crop suddenly dropped and Coke starting selling off its stock. The conclusion, according to the story, is that old Coke/Classic Coke contains vanilla beans and new Coke doesn't. In fact, vanilla sources say that old Coke used more than 30 percent of the world's annual crop of the beans, The Journal reported; thus it was more than just Coke consumers who were pleased with the reintroduction of the original formula.

Coca Cola spokesman Mark Pricinger said, "In general, we feel the story is exaggerated." Although Pricinger declined to confirm or deny whether old Coke contains vanilla, he said that "in regard to the 30 percent figure, we feel that, too, is exaggerated." Rene Ranison, commercial counselor of the Embassy of Madagascar, said he doesn't know who buys vanilla beans from U.S. importers and that he had no comment on the article.

At least one industry source was willing to spill these beans. Tom Burns, executive vice president of the American Spice Trade Association, who used to work for McCormick & Co., said that the original Coke formulation does contain vanilla. According to Burns, the biggest supplier of vanilla to Coke is a bean import company in Philadelphia called Zink & Triest. Burns said that Coke buys the beans and extracts the vanilla from them at the company's own plants.

Coke's Pricinger said, "We prefer not to discuss our business relationships." G. Winship Taylor, vice president of Zink & Triest, said, "We're not supposed to talk about it, therefore I can't comment about it." Earlier Taylor said he has "been in the business for a long time" and is "going on the assumption" that old Coke contains vanilla, although he added that whatever the Coca-Cola company decides to do with its formulation, it wouldn't have an impact on the vanilla bean industry.

Emmanuel Goldman, a beverage analyst for Montgomery Securities, agrees. Although Goldman didn't know whether old Coke indeed contained vanilla, he said that the amount of vanilla that would be used in a soft drink would be "very small" and that it wouldn't be a big economic factor in terms of cutting down the cost of the product.

But Burns from the American Spice Trade Association isn't so sure. One ounce of pepper will season 1,445 fried eggs, says Burns, yet the United States imports 30,000 tons of the stuff a year. As with Coke, if you multiply the amount of any spice or flavoring by a billion, it "begins to mount," Burns said.

At least one fact is for sure. Pepsi uses vanilla beans in its formulation, according to company spokesman Ken Ross.

And another fact is for sure. Vanilla beans are expensive, a factor that has to do with "supply, demand and politics," according to Skip Rosskam, senior vice president of sales and marketing for David Michael & Co., a Philadelphia flavor manufacturer and vanilla bean extractor. In fact, Rosskam's company is funding a University of Delaware study that will be exploring the use of biotechnology to come up with a stronger, more flavorful and less expensive bean.

Vanillin is the substance that is extracted from the liquid of the bean, which is used in manufacturing pure vanilla extract, according to Rosskam. While there are strict government standards of identity for what can and can't be called "pure vanilla extract" (among other guidelines, it must contain a minimum of 35 percent alcohol), vanillin is also made synthetically and sold as "imitation vanilla extract." The artificial version is substantially more concentrated than the natural product.

Although Coke undoubtedly will never say for sure whether old Coke, new Coke or Classic Coke contains vanilla, the following Express Lane meal definitely does. Make sure you have sugar, oil and salt on your shelf before you head for the store to make your tiny dent in the livelihood of Madagascar.

EXPRESS LANE LIST: whole wheat flour, baking powder, eggs, milk, blueberries, pure vanilla extract, yogurt, ricotta cheese WHOLE WHEAT BLUEBERRY PANCAKES WITH VANILLA SAUCE (4 servings)

1 1/3 cups whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/3 cups lowfat milk

1 egg, slightly beaten

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup blueberries


1 cup plain yogurt

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1/4 cup lowfat milk

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla or more to taste

1 teaspoon sugar or to taste

Heat a pancake griddle or skillet with a nonstick surface. Mix together flour, salt and baking powder. Beat milk, egg, oil and sugar together. Add liquid mixture to flour mixture. Add blueberries. Stir just until flour is moistened.

To make vanilla sauce, place yogurt, ricotta cheese, milk, vanilla and sugar in a blender or food processor and process until smooth and pourable.

To make pancakes, pour about 1/4 cup batter onto hot griddle. Cook until covered with bubbles, flip and brown other side. Serve with vanilla sauce. Save extra sauce and serve with fruit.