Posted by Eric Troy on 08 Nov 2013 17:04
Is There Really a Flavoring Ingredient Extracted from Beaver Glands? Is This What Raspberry, Strawberry, or Vanilla Flavors Are?
The answer is yes, there is a food additive called castoreum that is derived from certain glands of the beaver and it can be used as a flavoring ingredient in foods. Although it is a flavoring ingredient, it is not a vanilla, raspberry, or strawberry flavoring, as is often reported. Instead, it is a flavor enhancer or modifier.
It is also used in perfumes for a musky scent or to give leather overtones, as well as to help preserve the fragrance for longer. By the way, castor oil can perform this same function, and the similarity of the names is no accident. Castor is French for beaver, and castor oil got its name from the animal because of the oil's usefulness in replacing castoreum.
Does it Come From the Beaver Anus?
The castoreum is a secretion from male or female beavers, which are native to Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with the Siberian secretions being less valuable commercially. Beavers have a pair of pouch-like sacs, called castor sacs, between the kidneys and bladder, located on top of the base of the tail, just above the cloaca, or vent, which is the beaver's only excretory opening. The secretion and the smell that comes from it is sometimes called beaver taint.
A cloaca is a common cavity and opening into which the intestinal, urinary, and reproductive paths open and empty. It is in amphibians, reptiles, birds, elasmobranch fishes (such as sharks), and monotremes, but most mammals do not have it. In rodents like the beaver, it is an acquired trait. Therefore, so-called beaver anal gland extract is not really from the anal gland, since technically speaking, beavers don't have an anus. However, in fairness, anal gland is close enough. Yes, castoreum does come from the ass end of a beaver. So, this part, at least, is not a myth.
The castor sacs are scent glands, and the secretions from these glands, called castoreum, are used after the glands are harvested from the animals and dried, either in the sun or over burning wood. The pouches contain a yellowish, butter-like mass which has a fetid, sharp, aromatic odor. When this secretion is dried it becomes dark red or brown and has the consistency of hard wax. It is ground into a powder, and tinctures, resinoids, or absolutes are derived from it. When diluted, the scent becomes more pleasant. The smell is described as slightly fruity with notes of birch tar and musk.
Many people, for obvious reasons, get upset when they find out they may have been eating the secretions from the anal glands of a beaver, and some people think that this is like eating "anal juice." However, anal glands are glands that are associated with the anus, and they are basically modified sweat glands. You are not eating the anus of a beaver (as above, they don't technically have an anus) and you are not eating the juice from the anus of a beaver.
Castoreum is NOT a Vanilla, Raspberry, or Strawberry Substitute
If there is one thing I cannot stand is bloggers who refuse to check their facts, or do any research. Yet, when I checked several blog posts about castoreum, most of them called castoreum a vanilla substitute. Folks, are we that gullible? Do we really think it is possible to extract something from the anal glands of a beaver and have it taste like vanilla? Really? Of course not. Castoreum is a flavor enhancer that is used along with other flavors, such as vanilla. It cannot replace them. The same sorts of things are said about raspberry and strawberry flavors, and again, the same is true.
Castoreum has been used as a flavoring ingredient for the past 80 years. However, it is not necessary for food labels to list the ingredient by name. It can simply be listed as natural flavoring. It is used as a flavoring ingredient in many foods and beverages, and, as said, particularly in vanilla flavored products. It has also been used in many raspberry flavored products, but, as bears repeating, is not a substitute for raspberry, strawberry, or any other fruit flavor, as is sometimes claimed in articles on the internet. It is reported to have been used in baked goods, chewing gum, frozen dairy desserts, gelatins, puddings, hard and soft candy, and beverages. It is not used to impart a particular flavor, but rather as a flavor modifier. It is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) but is not Kosher and cannot be made Kosher. It may also, as stated above, be present in perfumes, and cigarettes as well.
Jamie Oliver, along with his "pink slime" debacle, made a claim, on David Letterman, that castoreum is in "cheap strawberry syrups and vanilla ice cream." In either a less than intellectually honest fashion, or perhaps in simple confusion, cook Oliver seems to think that if castoreum is used in vanilla flavored products, it must be used in ALL vanilla ice cream. Interestingly, it is only used in "cheap" strawberry syrups, making me wonder if Oliver doesn't know that cheap ice cream and expensive ice cream also exists, and why they don't use castoreum in expensive strawberry syrups. I also wonder exactly where I can get an expensive strawberry syrup.
It is not even remotely likely that all vanilla ice cream contains castoreum for the reasons explained in the next section, below. I would not be surprised, however, to find out that Oliver read an internet article claiming that vanilla flavoring was made with castoreum and just went with it on Letterman. It is not, by the way, and castoreum cannot legally be used in a vanilla flavoring, nor can anything remotely similar to it be used. The confusion probably comes from not understanding the difference between "vanilla flavor" and vanilla flavored products. While castoreum may be added to the mix of flavoring ingredients, including vanilla flavor, used in a vanilla flavored product, it cannot be used as part of the vanilla flavor (such as extract), itself.
Beavor Castoreum is Highly Expensive
There is one thing that you may have realized reading the above and that Oliver, most certainly, does not. Deriving beaver castoreum takes a lot of trouble! Beavers don't exactly grow on trees, and, if you want to get at the stuff humanely (without killing the animal) it's even tougher. To estimate, the cost may be up to $70 a pound. That is one expensive flavor ingredient. So, not only is it unlawful to use castoreum in a vanilla extract, it is highly unlikely that many food companies would want to use it as a flavoring ingredient, at all, being that there are much cheaper alternatives.