Beaver butts — the weird reason SA Googled 'vanilla flavouring' this year

22 December 2020 - 06:30
The best vanilla flavouring is extracted from vanilla pods.
The best vanilla flavouring is extracted from vanilla pods.
Image: 123RF/Olga Yastremska

According to Google's Year in Search report, one of the top trending questions asked by SA in 2020 was Where does vanilla flavouring come from?” Spoiler alert: the answer will probably ruin cupcakes for you.

The question seems to have been sparked by a TikTok video that went viral last month in which viewers were challenged to record themselves before and after Googling “where does vanilla flavouring come from?”

We decided to do a quick search of our own and were shocked by the explanation offered by an article on National Geographic. It stated that vanilla flavouring could come from a substance called castoreum — a chemical compound derived from the anal excretions of beavers.

The gooey substance, which apparently has a consistency of molasses and is used by beavers to mark their territory, has a surprisingly vanilla-like scent which National Geographic attributes to the beaver's diet of bark and leaves.

If that’s not bad enough, the substance is produced by the beaver’s castor sac, which is situated so closely to the animal’s anal glands that castoreum is often a “combination of castor gland secretions, anal gland secretions, and urine”.

The article references an entry published in the International Journal of Toxicology in 2007 which says castoreum is generally regarded as a safe additive by the US Food and Drug Administration, meaning some manufacturers don’t even include castoreum on the list of ingredients for some foods and instead refer to it as “natural flavouring”.

However, according to Michael Gristwood, the executive director of the SA Association of the Flavour and Fragrance Industry, castoreum is likely no longer used to create vanilla flavouring today.

“I think what you’ve picked up is fake news and it’s not news — it’s actually old,” says Gristwood. “As far as I know castoreum used to be used in the 1900s, but today it is used in such small quantities worldwide and most of that is in perfumery where it’s among the some 5,000 individual raw materials used to create perfume compounds.”

The reason for this, says Gristwood, is that castoreum is a very expensive product. You cannot use live animals to obtain it so you have to use the castor sac of dead beavers that have been dried and aged to harvest castoreum.

As far as I know castoreum used to be used in the 1900s, but today it is used in such small quantities worldwide and most of that is in perfumery
Michael Gristwood, the executive director of the South African Association of the Flavour and Fragrance Industry

If you want to create a vanilla flavour there are many other cheaper, easier ways to obtaining it.

The best vanilla flavour comes from vanilla extract which is derived from vanilla pods, but that is also expensive

The more affordable option, which is widely used today, is a vanilla flavour that comes from chemically-synthesised vanillin.

“Though castoreum is regarded as a natural ingredient, today through the use of biochemistry one can create the chemical vanillin naturally so there’s absolutely no need to use it,” says Gristwood.

“As an industry worldwide the use of animal ingredients is very frowned upon ... it’s being used less and less. I think the industry has become sensitive to these sort of things,” he adds.