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?