What’s better on a hot Texas summer day than a big bowl of vanilla ice cream? Or maybe strawberry?
Would it still sound as appealing if I told you some of the artificial flavoring in your ice cream may have come from the butt of a beaver?
“Castoreum is a chemical compound that mostly comes from a beaver’s castor sacs, which 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. The fragrant brown slime is about the consistency of molasses, though not quite as thick,” reports Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato at nationalgeographic.com.
For decades that precious goo has been used as a food flavoring additive – it can be made to enhance vanilla, strawberry, or raspberry – or an ingredient in perfumes that prolongs the life of the fragrance. Some report that in its natural state beaver butt goo smells like leather, and is therefore used in aerosol cans labeled “Fresh Car Fragrance” and sold at carwashes and such.
“When I spoke with a scientist who works with beavers,” Bloudoff-Indelicato says, “She actually told me that while it does smell vanilla-y, it has a certain musky, potent smell to it as well that I assume some manufacturers appreciate.”
As for how the castoreum makes it makes it from a beaver’s behind into a food additive beaker, Bloudoff-Indelicato describes an unpleasant process.
“You start by anesthetizing the creature, and then you stimulate the beaver’s caster sacs. And then somebody has the amazing job of actually milking beavers.”
Mark Melby, a fur buyer in Minnesota, describes an easier method. “People I know just trap the beavers, kill ‘em, and cut the castor sac out.”
The use of castoreum as an artificial flavor carries with it the imprimatur of approval from the FDA, and manufacturers don’t even have to tell you that it’s one of the ingredients.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually lists castoreum as ‘generally regarded as safe’ (GRAS), which means manufacturers in most cases can use it without specifically stating that that’s what it actually is because it is a ‘natural flavor’,” Bloudoff-Indelicato explains.