Your Vanilla Ice Cream May Actually Smell Like Beaver Butt

Natural flavoring may be a little grosser than you thought

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Andrew Unangst/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

As any Cosmo reader will tell you, it’s a well-tested truth that men love the smell of vanilla. Turns out though, that men may not be falling for a scent that reminds them of childhood, but for something else entirely: Castoreum a.ka. a fragrant, brown slime that comes from a beaver’s castor sacs, which are located pretty much where you expect them to be located.

The chemical compound that beavers use to mark their territory has a musky, vanilla scent, which is why some perfume makers incorporate the component into their products and food scientists add the all-natural ingredient into recipes. As one can surmise, the vanilla aroma is not typical of the area, but is a product of the beaver’s unique diet of leaves and bark, said Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, speaking to National Geographic.

Collecting castoreum can be a tricky endeavor though. A beaver’s castor sacs are located between the pelvis and the base of the tail. Because of its close proximity to the anal glands, castoreum is often a combination of castor gland secretions, anal gland secretions, and urine. “You can milk the anal glands so you can extract the fluid,” Crawford said. “You can squirt [castoreum] out. It’s pretty gross.” That may explain why castoreum is not an especially common source of vanilla flavoring. According to Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, published in 2005, total annual consumption of both castoreum extract and castoreum liquid was around 250 pounds, undoubtedly because the milking process is unpleasant for all parties involved.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists castoreum as a “generally regarded as safe” additive, and manufacturers have been using it extensively in perfumes and foods for at least 80 years, according to National Geographic and a study in the International Journal of Toxicology.  Because the FDA considers the ingredient safe, in some cases, manufacturers don’t have to list castoreum on the ingredient list and may instead refer to it simply as “natural flavoring.”  Apparently “gross” is not something the FDA quantifies.

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5 comments
AlexAlexander
AlexAlexander

Another reason not to eat processed food.  Just beginning to learn that food labels don't actually tell you what's in the food.

nala
nala

About 30 years ago I worked in the flavors and fragrance industry.  The company made (compounded)  the oils for perfumes and produced food flavorings, both natural and artificial.  One of the flavor chemists told me that he used a little bit of castoreum in a peach flavor that they made that was used in a peach ice cream  of a large, well-known company.  The castoreum "warmed up" the flavor, and if you smelled food-grade castoreum, you would see that it is pleasant. 

While this is kind of gross, it's not unsafe or illegal, but ethically....    I think that everyone has a right to know what is in their food, and it's not right especially to add an animal product to a dairy product that most people would assume was vegetarian.  I'd guess that castoreum would also make this product non-kosher (mixing meat and dairy.

There are hundreds of ingredients on the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) list that do not have to be specifically listed on a label.  I don't like it, but you can't do anything about it, there are much bigger problems in the world so I don't think about it.

ccatalana
ccatalana

I would have hope that in order to be a TIME contributor you had to do some basic reasearch before publishing such mindless infomration.

Did you research it with any company who makes vanilla? if you did you would have found this to be utter BS.

Even the vegan press ran this down 6 years ago and pucblished the follwoing on one of their blogs ( see below.)

If you dont like Ice cream or dairy , please find a more informed and ethical  way of writing about your displeasure rather than this nonsense.

Moron

A reader wrote to The VRG in April 2011 about a comment made by British chef, Jamie Oliver, on The Late Show with David Letterman. Mr. Oliver said that vanilla flavoring in ice cream is made with castoreum, a substance derived from beaver anal glands. The reader asked us if there was any truth to this statement.

The VRG asked five companies that manufacture both natural and artificial vanilla, vanilla extracts, concentrates, distillates, powders, and flavors. All five unanimously stated that castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use.

One company, in business for ninety years, informed The VRG that they have never used castoreum in their products. “At one time,” we were told by a senior level employee at this company, “to the best of my knowledge, it was used to make fragrance and still may be

humblebee
humblebee

@ccatalana I dunno, you sound pretty naive. This article didn't say that all vanilla is beaver anus, or that all companies who make vanilla flavored stuff use beaver anus. It just said that there's a chance some vanilla flavored thing you ate once could have been beaver anus. You referenced 5 companies that denied using the stuff, but there are hundreds of companies out there. 300 pounds per year is very low spread amongst 300 million people, but that doesn't mean you have never tasted beaver anus.

jillsyclary
jillsyclary

@humblebee@ccatalanaUm, who's the moron?! Looks like a pretty well researched article to me. National Georgraphic, US FDA., IJT. Where are your references? Oh, the VRG 'asked' 5 companies? You mean, the same 5 companies that are making money on it? If nothing wrong is being done by the powerful food magnates (Monsanto, Nestle, etc), why isn't there truth in labeling? They shot it down here in CA immediately with big money backing the campaign shoot down! "Natural" isn't enough for me when I want to know what I'm eating! Maybe its enough for you to be told, "they told me so", but not me...at least, not from the company reps. I'd like to see behind the battle lines, so to speak. I believe Nala, as well, who worked in the industry & spoke to the chemists. Profits & lobbyists have a lot of power over people...when money and power are at stake. And of course, companies never lie! hahaha