VANILLA IS IN our cupcakes, birthday cakes, and ice cream cones. It is sweetness personified, the taste of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies after dinner and licking frosting straight off the spatula. A little bottle of vanilla extract is a staple in pantries across America, and there is hardly a home baker in the country that questions where it came from when they pour a teaspoon into batter or dough. They definitely aren’t thinking about beaver glands. And yet these forest-dwelling, dam-building furry little creatures once played a central role in the production of artificial vanilla extract.
What beavers have to do with vanilla extract
Beavers have sweet-smelling butts. The castor gland, located underneath the beaver’s tail distressingly close to the anus, produces a slimy brown substance called castoreum. In nature, beavers use castoreum to mark their territory. Thanks to a diet of tree bark, the goo has a musky fragrance similar to natural vanilla.
The properties of castoreum have made it a popular additive in perfumes and to enhance vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors in foods like ice cream and yogurt. Don’t rush into your kitchen and purge all your vanilla extract from your cabinets or toss your vanilla ice cream from the freezer, though. Castoreum is rarely used to flavor food anymore, and even if it were, the FDA has ruled that it poses no health risk.
The biggest challenge to processing castoreum for use in food is that it’s challenging to harvest, as you might imagine. According to National Geographic, the process is complex and invasive. First the beaver must be anesthetized and the castor gland “milked” to produce the secretion. The entire experience sounds unappetizing (would you really want to use castoreum on your food after witnessing where it comes from?) and uncomfortable, for the beaver in particular.
Since at least 2013, only 300 pounds of castoreum have been produced annually. Going farther back, in 2011, one vegetarian non-profit asked five companies that produce natural and artificial vanilla if they used castoreum in their products. “All five unanimously stated that castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use” and that its more common use is in fragrances. Any pearl-clutching articles you may have run across spreading panic that there’s beaver butt oil in your food are greatly exaggerated.
Interesting stuff! Note that castoreum is not to be confused with castor oil, which is derived from castor beans; castor oil was indeed at one point used as a substitute for castoreum, thus its name. The word castor itself is Latin for beaver. I was disappointed to learn that this word is not the origin of “castrate,” after the beaver’s alleged practice of biting off its own testicles to leave as an offering for any pursuers. According to Wiktionary, “castrate” comes from castro, castrare, Latin for cutting.
The beaver’s reputed defensive strategy may be found in Pliny the Elder and Aesop, and was widely believed in the Middle Ages, as the two illustrations attest. The beaver’s testicles are actually inside its body so biting them off is a physical impossibility, and the myth may have arisen on account of the beaver’s castor sacs which were visible (and highly prized). The word castor, referring to beaver, may derive from the Sanskrit word for musk. For more, see “Fantastically Wrong: Why People Used to Think Beavers Bit Off Their Own Testicles” on Wired.