Where does vanilla flavouring come from? Beaver castoreum explained - and why it's used in cakes and icing

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The stomach-churning origins of vanilla extract and flavourings have been revealed on social media

Ever since TikTok user @sloowmoee posted a clip to the video sharing platform, in which he says: “Record yourself before and after googling ‘where does vanilla flavouring come from’?” the internet has been freaking out about the origins of vanilla flavouring.

In the video, Sloowmoee takes a sip of a vanilla latte, and after googling the question, he shouts: “No more vanilla!”

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The video has garnered over 190 thousand likes, and over five thousand comments since it was posted.

Did you know about the unusual connection between beavers and vanilla flavourings? (Photo: Shutterstock)Did you know about the unusual connection between beavers and vanilla flavourings? (Photo: Shutterstock)
Did you know about the unusual connection between beavers and vanilla flavourings? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Since then, the question, “where does vanilla flavouring come from?” has been taking over social media sites.

This is what you need to know.

Where did vanilla flavouring come from?

While most of us are aware that vanilla extracts and vanilla flavoured things come from vanilla pods, there are non-plant ways of creating artificial vanilla flavourings.

A chemical compound used in vanilla flavouring and scents comes from the anal glands of beavers. Castoreum is a substance that is produced by a beaver’s castor sac, which is found between the pelvis and the base of the tail.

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Beavers use this substance, which is usually brown and sticky, to mark their territory. The vanilla scent is often attributed to the animal’s diet of bark and leaves.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves castoreum as a food additive.

A 2007 study in the International Journal of Toxicology found that manufacturers had been using castoreum extensively in foods and perfumes for at least 80 years.

Joanna Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, told National Geographic that to acquire the castoreum, the beaver needs to be anaesthetised and then its nether regions are “milked”.

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She said: “You can milk the anal glands so you can extract the fluid.

“You can squirt [castoreum] out. It’s pretty gross.”

Is modern day vanilla made using beaver anal secretions?

Internet fact checking site Snopes gave the claim that castorum is a commonly used food additive a rating of “mostly false”.

The website states: “The use of castoreum in common food products today is exceedingly rare, in large part because collecting the substance is difficult (and therefore expensive).”

The website explains that the total annual national consumption of castoreum, castoreum extract and castoreum liquid combined is only around 292 pounds, “which works out to an average of less than a millionth of a pound per person in the US”.

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Approximately 20 million pounds of vanilla naturally harvested from real vanilla beans every year.

“Depending upon as scarce a substance as castoreum to flavour the ice cream and candy found on store shelves would create nationwide shortages of those items and drive their prices up beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest of customers,” Snopes says.

In 2019, Professor Chilcott told the academic website The Conversation: “Beavers can heave a sigh of relief.

“Their contribution to the food industry now accounts for a tiny fraction of natural vanilla flavouring and tends to be limited to luxury foods and beverages.”

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In 2011, the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) asked five companies that produce vanilla flavourings if any of them used castoreum in their products - to which all five replied that they did not.

The companies told VRG that castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human consumption, with one company stating: “[Castoreum] is not a common raw material that is used, and we don’t use it, so I can safely say that our natural vanilla flavours do not contain any animal juices.

“All vanilla extracts are free of it, too, wherever you go.”

Why do we use vanilla flavouring in cakes and icing?

When you’re making baked treats of any kind, whether it be cakes, cookies, brownies or whatever else you’re whipping up, you’re always bound to see vanilla listed in the ingredients.

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Chef John Demetrios, pastry chef of a two Michelin star restaurant in Stockholm called Oaxen Krog told Huffington Post: “I like to think of vanilla as a spice that enhances sweetness - the way salt brings out the best in savoury ingredients.

“Vanilla adds aroma in baked treats as well as custards and creams. I also think it compliments the flavours of eggs and sugar incredibly. Many chocolate producers add vanilla to their finished products, purely to give a more rounded feel on the palette.”

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