“Beaver Butt” My Eye

Remember the schoolyard rumors from all those years ago about ground worms in McDonald’s hamburgers? Spider eggs in chewing gum? Well over the past couple of years there’s been another one: beaver anal gland exudate, a material called castoreum, in imitation vanilla. The stuff was once described by a cosmetics formulator as having some “vanilla-like” notes. Once those words were uttered it wasn’t long before the vanilla extract rumor hit the streets. Given its patent absurdity, it’s achieved surprising traction. No less a person than Jamie Oliver repeated it on the David Letterman show in 2011.

So what’s the reality here? The kernel of truth is that castoreum was indeed approved as an additive by the FDA a few years back. And while the designation does technically qualify it for food use, castoreum’s actual utility is in the cosmetics industry. That may be, you might say, but now that it’s been approved as an additive, Joe, what’s to stop unscrupulous vanilla makers from sneaking beaver anal gland extract into our ice cream?

At least two very big things. The first is this, the FDA Code of Federal regulations Title 21, which lays out in detail the ingredients that are allowed in vanilla extract. If your miracle vanilla ingredient — whatever it is — isn’t on that list, it can’t go into vanilla extract. That’s the law.

The second factor is price. Some 75,000 metric tons of vanilla extract are produced each year. What is that in beaver terms? Let’s find out. I don’t know how much a beaver gland weighs, but let’s put the figure at an ounce. That’s probably generous. Let’s also assume we need one beaver gland for every 100 gram (roughly four once) bottle of extract. One metric ton is a million grams, which means to make a metric ton of vanilla extract we’d need 10,000 beaver glands. Multiple that by 75,000 and that’s 750 million glands required to meet global demand for one year. I think you’ll agree that that’s one hell of a lot of beavers.

So the logical question is: how many beavers are there in America? Recent estimates put the total feral beaver population for all of North America (including Canada) at 15 million animals, maximum. So unless there’s a huge commercial beaver farming industry out there that’s somehow escaped my notice, we could kill off every last beaver on the North American Continent and meet only a tiny fraction of 2013 global demand.

So you can see how absurd this “beaver butt” rumor really is. Part of the reason some perfumes are so expensive is because some of them actually do use animal secretions of various kinds (civet, castoreum, musk, ambergris). These animals either need to be caught or kept which means food, medication (when they get sick) slaughtering and processing. All that costs money — a lot of money. So if you were an aspiring imitation vanilla maker, what would you do: makes yours out of low-cost, easily accessible commodities like plant oils or wood pulp? Or beaver glands that are rare, cost a fortune and not legal for use in your product? The question answers itself, no?

8 thoughts on ““Beaver Butt” My Eye”

  1. Argentina used to have so many beavers that there were (are?) bounties for hunting them, because as an imported species, they destroyed (still do?) the forests there. The numbers by far don’t suffice to still the global vanilla demand, though.

    1. Hehe…yeah, that would take a whole lot of those critters! Thanks, uptight!

      – Joe

  2. Some years ago I read about extracting vanilla flavor from cow dung 🙂 It was economically viable and the flavor chemically didn’t differ from vanillin, but due to psychological aspect these guys admitted that appropriate use for this one would be in shampoos and other cosmetic products.

    1. Ha! I’ll bet. No doubt chemical science could produce a lot of safe and inexpensive products from starting materials like these. Our psychological barriers as consumers are real, however. Logical arguments are powerless int he face of the gag reflex. Such is life! 😉

      – Joe

  3. Actually, the Dutch tv program Keuringsdienst van Waarde is specialized in finding out the truth about rumors like this and other weird things they stumble upon. They also heard the rumors about beaver anal glands being used for aroma and went on a search. They made 2 episodes about it (for Dutch speeking people, you can watch them online), and found out that there is at least some truth to this rumor.

    A short summary. Beaver anal glands are mainly used for cosmetics, but they are also used in food aroma. It gives a sophisticated depth of flavour in aromas like vanilla, caramel and chocolate and it is known to be used in ice cream, candy and puddings.
    Beavers are hunted in America, Canada and Russia (among others), for their fur. The castor glands are a byproduct, and some of them are sold (with some steps in between) to food aroma producers in Europe. Because castoreum has a very intense taste, you don’t need much, for example 0.2 mg for a liter of vanilla ice cream. In Europe it is allowed to use. Unfortunately, the industry wasn’t very cooperative, so they couldn’t pinpoint products in which it is used, but for sure it is used in some products. Also, in the past it was used a lot more.

    1. Hey Ena!

      I don’t know how potent castoreum is, I’d have to see a spec sheet on it. But I’m not completely discounting that there’s some boutique ice cream product out there…somewhere…that uses castoreum on a tiny scale. However I can all but guarantee that it’s not used by any major ice cream brand, for reasons outlined above. Food ingredients are my business, and I can tell you that major food brand managers are some of the most risk-averse people I’ve ever met. In the age of Michael Pollan, they know that they’re walking around with targets on their back. There’s no way they’d add an expensive, rare and controversial ingredient like this to their formulas when there are so many less expensive vanilla alternatives out there. Major brands don’t do sophisticated depth of flavor. They do vanilla. That’s about the size of it.

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

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