“Yes: you have eaten vanilla made from the anus of a beaver“. I have seen it hundreds of times on social networks and web pages, but I am almost sure that this RTVE article is the one that goes the most to the point. The headline has it all: Vanilla, anuses, beavers and, finally, food.
The only problem is that there are many ballots that it is a lie. But, let us start at the beginning.
What does the anus of the beaver have to do with vanilla? With the vanilla pods, nothing at all. However, if we refer to the “vanilla flavor”… things change. According to explained in Vice magazine According to flavor historian Nadia Berenstein, during the 1960s and 1970s American food manufacturers began using very small amounts of castoreum to enhance artificial vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors.
That’s the connection: castoreum is an oily substance that beavers secrete from nearby glands located between the anus and the tail. Beavers use it to groom their hair, but since time immemorial (due to its sweet, and sometimes musky scent) has been used as a substance in perfumery, medicine, and food.
I mean, it’s true. Let’s say, for the moment, that it is not a lie. And, in fact, today the North American FDA keep accepting the substance as a food additive. However, the truth is that these same North American manufacturers quickly realized that the use of castoreum was a huge bottleneck.
There are no beavers for so much vanilla. Well, for starters, there is no vanilla for so much vanilla. Already in the 60s, producers realized that the demand for vanilla-flavored things was going to eat the world production of vanilla pods. So they set about developing ways to artificially generate that flavor (like with strawberry and raspberry).
The story is simple: as it happens with medicines, at an industrial level there is always it is better to have a standardized compound (and easy to make). The taste of plants depends on many environmental factors and depending on them is usually a bad idea.
During the 1960s and 1970s many vanilla flavor makers turned to castoreum as a way to round out their flavorings, but ran into the same problem. There was no commercial circuit on a large scale of “beaver years”. in fact, by that time the beaver farms that had enjoyed good health until the first half of the century were in the doldrums. Synthetic fur had sent these ranchers to ruin.
“What do we do?” asked the manufacturers. Substitute vanilla and substitute beavers. The key was to find a way to produce vanillin (the key compound in flavor). And they got it, boy did they get it. Day by day, less than 0.3% of the vanillin used to flavor foods actually comes naturally from vanilla beans. And of course, virtually no vanilla flavor comes from the anus of the beaver.
As far as we know, the vast majority of today’s vanillin is synthesized from guaiacola natural compound that can be extracted from guaiacs, from desert locusts and coal processing. I mean, in very strange places, yes, but unfortunately not in a beaver’s ass.
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Image | Tim Umphreys