Yesterday I heard one of the grossest things I’ve heard recently (and I encounter “ick” all the time). I was told that artificial vanilla flavor comes from the anal glands of beavers.
The source was highly reliable, but…hmmm….
So I did what anyone named me would do. I turned to My Friend the Internet. Specifically, I turned to Ye Olde Snopes.
The answer (as it turns out) is a bit of “yes” but mostly “no” (so no need to run screaming to clean out your pantry—at least not because of this).
It turns out that beavers use one end of their bodies to eat (and gnaw trees) and the other to do several things including secrete castoreum which they use to mark their territories. When people get hold of castoreum, they use it in perfumes or as a food additive to enhance vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors.
But the use of castoreum in food is pretty rare. There aren’t that many beavers lining up to have their castoreum harvested. In fact, in most beavers consider having humans touch their nether regions rather unwelcome and scream for HR to take action. Hostile work environment! In addition, there aren’t that many humans lining up be beaver milkers. Which means that castoreum is rare and therefore expensive.
The total annual national consumption of castoreum, castoreum extract, and castoreum liquid combined is only about 292 pounds, which works out to an average of less than a millionth of a pound per person in the U.S. That’s pretty dang rare.
So chances are that any artificial flavors you encounter never encountered anything more wild than a test tube.