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Beaver Butts Emit Goo Used for Vanilla Flavoring

Just in time for holiday cookie season, we’ve discovered that the vanilla flavoring in your baked goods and candy could come from the anal excretions of beavers.

A beaver. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Beavers are among the largest of the rodents. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Beaver butts secrete a goo called castoreum, which the animals use to mark their territory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists castoreum as a “generally regarded as safe” additive, and manufacturers have been using it extensively in perfumes and foods for at least 80 years, according to a 2007 study in the International Journal of Toxicology.

“I lift up the animal’s tail,” said Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, “and I’m like, ‘Get down there, and stick your nose near its bum.’”

“People think I’m nuts,” she added. “I tell them, ‘Oh, but it’s beavers; it smells really good.’”

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, Crawford said.

While most anal secretions stink—due to odor-producing bacteria in the gut—this chemical compound is a product of the beaver’s unique diet of leaves and bark, Crawford added.

Instead of smelling icky, castoreum has a musky, vanilla scent, which is why food scientists like to incorporate it in recipes.

Save a Cow, Milk a Beaver

But getting a beaver to produce castoreum for purposes of food processing is tough. Foodies bent on acquiring some of the sticky stuff have to anesthetize the animal and then “milk” its nether regions. (Read about scientists who milk mice.)

“You can milk the anal glands so you can extract the fluid,” Crawford said. “You can squirt [castoreum] out. It’s pretty gross.”

Due to such unpleasantness for both parties, castoreum consumption is rather small—only about 292 pounds (132 kilograms) yearly. That statistic includes castoreum, castoreum extract, and castoreum liquid, according to Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients.

Still concerned you’re chowing down on beaver-bum goop? Because of its FDA label, in some cases, manufacturers don’t have to list castoreum on the ingredient list and may instead refer to it as “natural flavoring.” Yum.

Follow Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Douglas
    April 4, 12:10 am

    The natural vanilla flavor we are really eating comes from leptotes bicolor a type of orchid that contains vanillin. Fenoroli’s handbook of flavor ingredients list the consumption of castoreum at less than 300 pounds annually (global figure). Vanillin is listed at 2.6 million pounds. Considering how niche and expensive castoreum is the few consumers are probobly seeking it out.

  2. Steven
    April 1, 7:17 pm

    Castoreum is way more expensive than real vanilla. So what is the benefit to using it? Who sells it in large (1000 gallons or so) quantity? Why haven’t I seen Mike Rowe milking beavers on Dirty Jobs?

  3. Nathan Rhoads
    Glen, MS
    March 27, 7:02 pm

    The fact is that there’s no shortage of beavers in the world. Even though this is gross, beavers were created for the use of there pelts so ethically, in my opinion, harvesting the castoreum is not a bad thing if it’s in demand. My research shows that castoreum has been used for various applications for over 80 years and considering that makeup companies and other companies use aborted babies in their products this should not surprise nor offend anyone. If you animal rights tree huggers took as much interest in what really matters, maybe you’d be spending more time feeding hungry children instead of campaigning for the rights of organisms that were designed to be used for human needs in the beginning. Having worked in a cheese production plant for two years taught me that if we really knew what the FDA considers “acceptible” by way of contaminates and chemicals in foods we probably wouldn’t eat half of what’s sold in grocery stores. And if you want to get really technical, we eat feces every day in that foods are grown in the earths surface which contains the same chemical compounds as feces and some fertilizers are even made from some form of feces so is it really that bad or just the thought of it thats bad?

  4. lee
    March 8, 9:08 pm

    amazing. So we have coffee from cat poop, lightened with beaver butt puddin, call it Vanilla Buttandgo.

  5. Really?
    Carlsbad California
    February 18, 4:24 pm

    What a disappointing article. The castorum comes most likely from dead beaver and is collected at the rate of about $50/ lb. (wholesale) or about 8-15 dead beaver. Beaver have been shown to increase the value of ecosystem services to the tune of about $35,000 per animal. There’s too much mis-information and it is too cutesie.

    Also, due to new FDA rules as a result of the Patriot Act, it is impossible to find out what companies are using the castorum, let alone where they obtain it. Suggesting that castorum comes from live beavers insults the intellegence of your readers.

  6. rpearl
    Vancouver WA
    February 14, 5:37 pm

    This story missed this fact: castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use.
    Read more at http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/castoreum.asp#gHGl8ZBHkYecxq7c.99

  7. O.O
    February 9, 1:43 pm

    Please say this is a joke…

  8. Bobbie
    California
    December 11, 2013, 5:40 pm

    Castoreum is not a kosher substance, so if in doubt look for the kosher icon on the label.

  9. DeeN
    November 26, 2013, 10:06 am

    I’m with Lori and Feo Amante – where do they get the beavers? Are they kept in a lab? On a farm? In a corporate Beaver Pond? And, likewise, why use that instead of REAL vanilla?

  10. Achowalogen
    Des plaines, il
    November 19, 2013, 8:04 pm

    Only a small number will understand why I say this…

    “I used to be a beaver…”

  11. Beaver goo
    ny
    November 19, 2013, 5:33 pm

    That’s discussing but I will still eat dairy

  12. Levi
    Unknown
    November 14, 2013, 1:01 am

    I am still going to eat ice cream I don’t really care about that it still tastes good :D

  13. boo
    October 28, 2013, 1:41 pm

    I really believe consumers should be able to make informed decisions. isn’t that what capitalism is supposed to be about? Let these beaver butt-using companies and products be listed somewhere so people can choose NOT to buy them. Same with carmine (crushed beetles for red coloring).

  14. Adrianna
    NC
    October 27, 2013, 11:03 am

    After reading this I guess that is why I make my own vanilla extract and it is not that hard to make, it just takes time.

  15. Else Poulsen
    Toronto
    October 20, 2013, 9:37 am

    The chipper and cutesy nature of the writing concerns me. The majority of Castoreum likely comes from the beaver fur trade i.e. dead beavers. If the author had done her homework she would have mentioned that the death of thousands of beavers across Canada is helping to ruin the water resources that we are known for. Kill a beaver – cause a drought. The article is definitely lacking in content – I’m very disappointed in Nat Geo!!

  16. kiana davis
    chapel hill nc27516
    October 16, 2013, 3:34 pm

    that is really nasty wht the world is people thinking when they say that is good

  17. Dick Lorette
    International Falls, Mn.
    October 13, 2013, 6:23 pm

    When you use the castoreum as a lure in the trapping trade , and during the season you spend day after day in the presence of the odor, it does become ( can I say ) good smelling, I like to call it a sweet stink. I know an old trapper that kept a bit of castor in a shirt pocket so he could smell it at all times. I don’t know how his friends, and family handled it, but it was clear he did not care..

  18. umm
    trollvile minasoda
    October 13, 2013, 11:58 am

    umm ok a little disturbing the fact that i was eating a cookie while reading
    this

  19. alan
    md
    October 10, 2013, 9:07 am

    Vanilla Flavors and Imitation Extacts are not the same as Vanilla Extract. Vanilla Extract has a standard of identity in the Code of Federal Regulations. The standard of identity lists what is permissbale to be used in a Vanilla Extract formula – which is a very limited list. One of the MANY ingredients not permitted in vanilla extract is ‘natural flavor’.

  20. Choong Jin Ng
    Vancouver, British Columbia
    October 9, 2013, 1:27 am

    I don’t think learning this would put me off my favourite flavour.

  21. Libni Winsett
    Gaithersburg, Maryland
    October 8, 2013, 9:32 pm

    I love it the Vanilla Ice cream with Apple pie, but for now on I will not eat vanilla ice cream did gross me out.

  22. angel withers
    london
    October 8, 2013, 3:13 pm

    this is totally freaky and yucky

  23. angel withers
    london
    October 8, 2013, 3:12 pm

    that is just plain disgusting looks like i will also be making my own vanilla extract

  24. Marissa Richards
    New York
    October 7, 2013, 7:00 pm

    Seems like the method of “harvesting” castoreum is potentially harmful to beavers: “Foodies bent on acquiring some of the sticky stuff have to anesthetize the animal and then “milk” its nether regions.” It is detrimental to the beavers given how the castoreum is obtained and because there are side effects to being anesthetized. Such exploitation of beavers is unnecessary – there are kinder ways of creating foods that are enjoyable.

  25. cheryl somers
    calgary
    October 7, 2013, 4:15 pm

    Well ..it looks like I will be making homemade Vannilla extact from here on out……I know ppj stands for peanut butter jam…….bbj…beaver butt jam…..no thankyou.

  26. John
    Sydney, Australia
    October 7, 2013, 1:09 am

    Wouldn’t it be better to describe castoreum as an ‘anal secretion’ rather than ‘excretion’ ?

  27. Victor
    New Jersey
    October 6, 2013, 9:41 pm

    About 30 years ago I worked in the flavors and fragrance industry. The company made (compounded) the oils for perfumes and produced food flavorings, both natural and artificial. One of the flavor chemists told me that he used a little bit of castoreum in a peach flavor that they made that was used in a peach ice cream of a large, well-known company. The castoreum “warmed up” the flavor, and if you smelled food-grade castoreum, you would see that it is pleasant.

    While this is kind of gross, it’s not unsafe or illegal, but ethically…. I think that everyone has a right to know what is in their food, and it’s not right especially to add an animal product to a dairy product that most people would assume was vegetarian. I’d guess that castoreum would also make this product non-kosher (mixing meat and dairy.

    There are hundreds of ingredients on the GRAS (generally regarded as safe) list that do not have to be specifically listed on a label. I don’t like it, but you can’t do anything about it, there are much bigger problems in the world so I don’t think about it.

  28. Lucie Sparham
    Toronto
    October 5, 2013, 1:15 pm

    Better the beaver bum goop than the refined sugar!

  29. Lori
    Anmore, BC
    October 5, 2013, 3:41 am

    I have heard of this before but have never heard of a beaver farm. How exactly is this harvested and what is it like for the Beaver? Please tell me there isn’t a warehouse somewhere where Beavers live in small crates watching videos of a lake and get their anal glands squeezed every 5 days.

  30. Feo Amante
    Houston
    October 4, 2013, 8:02 pm

    Why would something so rare (only 132 kilograms annually?) and so difficult to obtain, cost so much less that food manufacturers would use it instead of actual vanilla bean: which is neither rare or difficult to obtain, particularly by comparison?

    I’m ready to call Shenanigans, here.

  31. Josh
    October 4, 2013, 2:29 pm

    It’s no secret that some people like the scent and flavour of beaver.

  32. Spencer
    October 4, 2013, 12:04 pm

    I <3 Beaver Butt

    http://www.poopsale.com

  33. jriley
    arizona
    October 4, 2013, 12:10 am

    I’ve often wondered what exactly “natural ingredients” means on the food labels. Mystery solved, lol… *gag*

  34. Leslie Bloudoff
    October 3, 2013, 4:22 pm

    Who knew? But I think I’ll stick with the vanilla bean extract. On the other hand, Mollie, if you’d like me to include this in your holiday cookies, let me know where I can purchase it. You won’t have to fight over any of those baked goods.

  35. Ima Ryma
    October 3, 2013, 4:12 am

    I am a beaver with a butt
    With a musky, vanilla scent,
    Thanks to castor glands in my gut
    Producing some pleasing content.
    Those humans can be such a pest.
    When I’m asleep, they milk me dry.
    Tough for a beaver to get rest,
    Tickled by them while getting my
    Stuff, which I hear they stick in food,
    And in perfumes for humans to
    Be skin applied and to be chewed.
    Most humans know not what they do.

    Labels – “natural flavering.”
    Some of me could be in the thing.

  36. Ian
    Sweden
    October 3, 2013, 1:42 am

    Dear Molly,
    I’m interested in the use of castoreum in food. I can see that you are referring to several books, among them Fenaroli’s. However, I have not been able to find any “real” evidence that any food manufacturer, anywhere, uses castoreum. The only castoreum that I have found is in a Swedish snaps called bäverhojt and it costs like an exclusive single malt.
    I would be most thankful if you could provide me with any recipes, or actual real facts, that castoreum is used in any foodstuffs (and references supporting them).
    Best regards -ian

  37. Calum F Blackshaw
    United States
    October 2, 2013, 8:27 pm

    And in return, here ‘s a stroy for you

  38. Ellie Rich
    October 2, 2013, 6:43 pm

    thats so gross

  39. Rylie
    Alabama
    October 2, 2013, 2:57 pm

    WOW….. I don’t think I will be eating or putting vanilla in anything anymore thanks for this information it is very interesting! :(

  40. Raya Silvermist
    bloopy
    October 2, 2013, 1:39 pm

    GROSS!!!!!

  41. mohamed
    egypt
    October 2, 2013, 11:32 am

    thes is good thenke

  42. Toni
    October 2, 2013, 10:30 am

    I’m a vegetarian, and that is frickin gross, I’m making my stuff homemade from now on.

  43. noh Lee
    south Korea
    October 2, 2013, 3:12 am

    I have never known this fact you post. thx for this to let me get the new information through that we can get the vanilla favor or scent from beaver~~^^

  44. Sydney
    sharpsburg, ga
    October 1, 2013, 9:16 pm

    Interesting. What type of foods is it in?

  45. thecrud
    October 1, 2013, 8:03 pm

    From now on I will look for the imitation.