If you’re new to veganism, I’m sorry to break it to you but certain artificial flavorings like vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry might be made from the anal secretions of beavers. It’s not as common in food nowadays because it became inconvenient and very expensive, but you can still find it in luxury fragrances, and the tobacco industry.
In the past, beavers were killed for their pelts, and as a result, their castoreum was also removed. But today castoreum is extracted in a sterile environment and the beavers are first anesthetized before their castoreum glands are milked. According to Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist, castoreum looks like a slimy, brown substance, but it has a surprisingly nice fragrance.
We have been using castoreum for at least 80 years to flavor ice cream, chewing gum, pudding and brownies, basically any food that would require a vanilla, raspberry, or a strawberry substitute. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case, but it’s still hard to know when it’s being included in products.
What is Castoreum?
Castoreum typically looks like a brown, slimy substance secreted from male and female Alaskan, Siberian, and Canadian beavers pouch-like sacs near the base of their tails.
Beavers have bad vision and hearing, but they have an exceptional sense of smell.
To mark their territory, beavers secrete castoreum in combination with urine on top of mounds of dirt they build on the edges of their home turf. They also use castoreum to waterproof their fur as a way to keep it dry and warm while they are immersed in cold water.
A fragrant combination of vanilla and raspberry with floral hints, castoreum is harbored in a gland that looks like a small ovoid sac about 5 to 17 cm long and between 2.5 and 5 cm wide. Castoreum, curiously, also carries information about a beaver’s health and it allows to distinguish between family members and outsiders.
Beavers are so attracted to their own smell, that fur trappers would bait them with castoreum.
Do Beavers Get Killed For Castoreum?
In order to collect both pelts and castoreum, hunters laid traps to kill beavers.
Today castoreum is rarely used in the mass-produced flavor industry, but it can still be used to add some fruity strawberry or raspberry notes, or as a substitute for vanilla. If you see it in a product, it’s likely a high-end artisanal product whose manufacturer is proud to let you know about the source of the flavor.
The good news is that beavers are generally no longer killed for castoreum, so to acquire it, they are anesthetized before getting their glands milked manually. This method releases a goo-like substance with a consistency akin to molasses – castoreum.
According to Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, the annual industry use of castoreum is extremely low when compared to the use of natural vanillin. The numbers provided in the handbook are astounding, with castoreum representing 300 pounds and natural vanillin 2.6 million pounds. For that reason, it’s unlikely to find castoreum in the foods we eat – as today it’s considered more of a luxury.
How Castoreum Is/Was Used
Even though most food additives are relatively recent discoveries, castoreum has been used by humans for thousands of years for a multitude of purposes.
It was an ingredient in an ancient Roman elixir called “The Caesar Antidote”, which was used to calm menstrual cramps and induce abortion. Two thousand years later and some individuals still believe that it may help women cope with menstrual pain. However, there is simply no good evidence to support its use.
Others, like Sir Francis Bacon, refer to castoreum as a medicine that helps improve mental acuity, which you can find written in his essay Of Friendship. Again, there is no scientific evidence to prove such benefit.
In the Middle Ages, it was also believed that castoreum could increase the honey production of bees. Though, for this specific use, there might have been a hint of truth because castoreum has strong antibiotic properties and might have protected the bees from disease.
Medieval physicians also used castoreum to relieve headaches, hysteria, and impotency, and once again, there is no legitimate scientific evidence capable of proving such benefits. In later centuries, it was also used as a base for perfume and found in the bottles of quack medicine sold by peddlers in America claiming that their potent mixture could cure about any disease.
The Swedish, on the other hand, soaked it in liquor to make a schnapps called beaver shout, a shot traditionally taken before embarking on a beaver hunt. Can’t speak about the flavor because I’ve never tasted it before.
Nowadays, castoreum has very few uses, which is not surprising when we think about the castoreum collected each year, and how it’s not economically feasible to harvest castoreum on a large scale.
Nevertheless, many people believe that castoreum is still the main ingredient in the “natural flavoring” present in many vanilla products, however, that is untrue.
Even though, yes, it’s still used in a few products, those are generally luxury perfumes or artisan food items.
Remember, a little less than 300 pounds is collected every year, so the probability of you eating a food item containing castoreum is slim to none.
Why is Castoreum Not Listed as an Ingredient?
It’s not that castoreum is not listed as an ingredient, however, companies are not legally required to reveal the ingredients that fall under the “natural flavors” umbrella.
The Food and Drug Administration deemed castoreum a safe ingredient for consumption, so companies can easily include it as a “natural flavor”. Unless an ingredient is classified as one of the major allergens, the companies don’t have to reveal the ingredient, which sort of protects brands from having to reveal “secret” ingredients.
We mentioned that it’s extremely unlikely to find castoreum in food products, but if you wish to be 100% certain, then the best thing to do is to contact the manufacturer and ask them. Given the different dietary restrictions and ethical/moral differences, most manufacturers won’t hesitate to explain what they’re using.
Do Beavers Smell Like Vanilla?
While the beavers themselves don’t smell like vanilla, the secretions they release have a unique, vanilla-like smell, which is a by-product of a diet rich in leaves and bark. In fact, Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist, points out that the beavers’ castoreum has a musky, vanilla scent that is surprisingly pleasant.
Does Starbucks Use Castoreum?
Fortunately, there is no evidence that Starbucks uses castoreum.
According to the print scree I captured above, both regular and sugar-free vanilla syrups do not contain castoreum or derivatives of castoreum.
In the past, beavers were abnormally exploited – for both pelts and castoreum.
As a result, some beavers became extinct (the ones in England), while others were pushed to the brink of extinction, but still managed to survive.
Today, even though you might have certain individuals/companies that may hunt beavers, I believe most obtain castoreum by anesthetizing beavers and milking their castoreum glands – without killing them.