Who figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry?


By now you may have heard, thanks to Jamie Oliver and Dr. Oz, that castoreum is a natural flavor behind some of the products we consume. I use the word “behind” literally, since castoreum is the product of a beaver’s anal glands. Castoreum is totally unique, chemically speaking, to the beaver – not to be confused with that stinky defensive spray that comes from a skunk’s anal glands, or reason dogs walk in circles sniffing each other’s rear ends. Same place, different thing.

Castoreum is dried and sold in bulk.

After doing a bit of online poking around, I’m declaring this NOT urban myth. The 2005 edition of industry handbook Fenaroli’s Flavor Ingredients reports the average part per million range of castoreum extract present in the following consumables: “Alcoholic beverages, Chewing gum, Frozen dairy, Gelatins and puddings, Gravies, Meat products, Nonalcoholic beverages, Soft Candy.” It’s not the only reputable source; the 1980 CRC Handbook of Food Additives states that castoreum adds “unusual notes to raspberry and strawberry.” I also found mention of castoreum in the 2000 edition of the Council of Europe’s Natural Sources of Flavorings, John Wright’s 2004 book Flavor Creation,  and the 2011 volume of Leung’s Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients: Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics (this is the one I might be putting on my birthday wish list).

Less certain is products you may be consuming that contain castoreum. The blogosphere says it shows up in the ingredient list of raspberry-tasting items masked as “natural flavors.” I found this  2009 patent application for a product designed to improve the taste of the potassium salt that can be present in low-sodium items; castoreum is one of the hundred or more ingredients that may help it taste better. The problem is that the term “natural flavors” is a specific designation, defined by the FDA as:

the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Commercial recipes are intellectual property, protected by law – think how many people have tried to figure out the secret behind Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola. And no company, unless they are willing to face a public relations nightmare will admit to putting castoreum in the mix for whatever delicious thing they concoct. That would either be a public relations nightmare or a big-time profit decline.

To be honest, I’m not too concerned with how disgusting it may be. I’ve eaten things that still give me sense memory nightmares – the brussels sprouts creme brûlée I barely choked down at LL’s 50th birthday dinner, for example. Much, much, worse that was the limpet sashimi under the stars at the Molokai Ranch after an otherwise lovely and restful day. I’m not here to judge the relative ickiness of one animal product over another – is injesting castoreum any different from eating any other product from an animal? We eat round steaks, otherwise known as rump roast. Same place, different thing, right?

The point I find unacceptable is not in the use of castoreum; that’s a completely different debate. What’s objectionable is the complete lack of transparency behind the FDA’s “natural flavors” designation. A person who chooses to be vegan or vegetarian, or a person with celiac disease or food sensitivities, or a person who just really wants to know what goes in their bodies, can’t ever really choose to consume a manufactured product with “natural flavors” listed as an ingredient because that bag is just too big. Food manufacturer’s intellectual property is protected, sure, but consumers lose any way to know exactly what we are consuming.

Even the most well-intentioned person could make an erroneous assumption. Case in point: I remember watching another mom at a candy store during the 4th grade field trip to Sacramento. It was a looooong day, especially for the kids: 3-hour bus rides each way, tours of the Capitol building and Sutter’s Fort and a jaunt through the Train Museum. Small wonder, by the time we were let loose to go explore Old Town, the kids made a beeline to the candy store.

I know this woman; she generally keeps junk food away from her kids, makes sure they lots of fresh fruit and vegetables . . .  all those good things. So there she was, carefully comparing ingredients in different flavored jelly beans. In what I thought it was a funny place to draw the line, those candies that listed “natural flavors” were fine for her daughter to choose from. Any with “artificial flavors” were banned. She made an assumption, like most of us probably do, that if a product has “natural flavor” listed on a package it has some relationship to the flavor of the product – and that’s NOT the case. That “natural flavor” can be anything from aloe to anise to castoreum to civet. Even in berry-flavored jelly beans.

I’ve got to be honest – I can’t help but wonder what genius figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry. I blame it on the ancient Roman Empire, where by 77 AD or so, when Pliny wrote his Natural History, castoreum already had a long and illustrious history as a homeopathic medication. He lists 66 uses for the extrude, as curing headache, neck ache, flatulence, constipation, asthma, and epilepsy, as well as a good depilatory. It was used in medicine well into the 18th century, when castor oil – so named to take advantage of castoreum’s popularity – took over in popularity. Small wonder that sometime over the last 2000 years or more someone wondered would happen if you added it to food . . .

Castoreum was, and still is, used in perfume making and is present in some homeopathic products. In these cases, castoreum is clearly labeled as an ingredient. That’s much more honesty than in the food manufacturing industry. Food manufacturing – that sounds like an oxymoron, but the truth is that processed food is manufactured to an astonishing degree. Consumers, beware.

Here is an excellent blog post I found by Vancouver writer TJ Dawe about castoreum and flavorings that’s worth a quick read. And on the off chance you’d like to experiment with castoreum yourself and lack easy access to a beaver trapper, just click here to visit Agro Laboratory and inquire about castoreum pricing. Go ahead – let me know what you come up with.

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69 Responses to Who figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry?

  1. Wow-So much info to take in at once. Though I think I could’ve handled it better w/out the photo illustration. Honestly, I’ve seen more attractive things come out of various ends of a cat. Ugh.

    This “natural flavors” things is fascinating. It really is a minefield, isn’t it? I’m very careful about MSG–I believe it falls under the natural flavorings category, too. I always wondered why certain fruit juices and, even honey (!) might include “natural flavors.” I avoid them all. Well, mostly. I like to know what I’m buying.

    Thanks for this. BTW–I think I’ve been on that field trip. Congratulations on your survival!

    • MSGMarathonMan says:

      MSG is not harmful and makes many things very delicious. It may cause problems if you over consume and don’t exercise, but so will Salt. What you should be careful of is iodized table salt which isn’t as easy for your body to process and will yield high blood pressure.

      • Fred Fnord says:

        While there have been a number of studies claiming to find that MSG is ‘totally harmless’, it’s amazing how bad some of them were. One that I recall specifically didn’t ask about any of the most commonly reported symptoms for people who claim to be MSG-sensitive at all (migraines, non-migraine headaches, joint aches, etc). Another one determined that there was no connection between MSG and any ill effects by the simple expedient of throwing out all of the double-blind people who reported only a single negative symptom, and only using those who reported two or more symptoms. And then carefully did not report the raw data, so that the single-symptom correlation could be done independently. I’d love to see a really good, thorough double-blind study on this, but I have not yet seen one, and the food industry in the US certainly has absolutely no impetus to produce or fund one.

        As for table salt, you’re also wrong about that. Over and over, studies in the last 15 to 20 years have shown that table salt (iodized or not) is not harmful to you unless you already have high blood pressure (and therefore have more difficulty disposing of excess salt.) Salt does not cause high blood pressure, it just exacerbates it once it is present.

        Going around speaking authoritatively on things that you know nothing about is bad for other people’s health. You should stop.

        • Aliciad54 says:

          Yay! Someone else knows that as long as you’re healthy you can eat salt!!! It retains fluids, which increase blood pressure if you’re already prone to high blood pressure.
          I’m not slowing down on salt until my blood pressure tells me too. But I am cutting out ‘natural flavorings’ as I believe we should all be able to choose what and when we eat something.

      • AMoparGirl says:

        You’re wrong on both counts. A cup of soup w/MSG makes my joints feel like I’m 100 years old. And our bodies need iodized salt. Those that only consume sea salt are not helping themselves. Salt only affects your BP if you already have high BP.

        • Trufrenz says:

          lol Our bodies do not need iodized SALT, it needs IODINE. ;) We use so much salt that they chose to put the iodine in it long ago to help prevent goiter. So many products have iodine in them now that sea salt is okay as long as we are getting our iodine elsewhere (seafood possibly). Salt for some is okay, salt for others is not. Every body is different, with different levels of needs. ;)

      • Sandra says:

        I have a friend that is allergic to MSG. It’s best not hidden.

  2. Judy Daniel says:

    I am never going to eat again.

    Love you, Mom

  3. Maggie says:

    Laura, salt and MSG have to be labeled separately; those ingredients don’t fall under the “natural flavorings” definition and won’t be hiding under a label. And a flavoring that consists of just one flavor – say strawberry – must be listed as such, i.e. “natural strawberry flavor” or “artificial strawberry flavor.”

    • Fred Fnord says:

      Actually, if the label says ‘spices’ then it is quite likely that the product contains MSG. There is nowhere in the US that it is required to be labelled, insofar as I am aware.

      • AMoparGirl says:

        It is listed as monosodium glutimate in the US & must be.

        • Laura says:

          Not true. It is listed as many other things. Yeast extract, hydrolyzed yeast, and hydrolyzed soy come to mind. These products are added to products because they are or contain MSG. But there are many others. The ingredients Disodium guanylate and disodium inosinate are flavor enhancers which DO NOT WORK BY THEMSELVES and are only used in a product in conjunction with MSG. So if you see those ingredients on a label, you can be sure that MSG is on the label somewhere, whether it is listed as such or hidden under another name. MSG can be classified as ‘spices’ or ‘natural flavor’. This is not a surprise; MSG is also known as free glutamic acid, and can be extracted from many natural sources. Glutamic acid is only harmful in its’ ‘free’ form, which is the form it takes after it has been fragmented and extracted. MSG is basically the processed form of glutamic acid.

  4. TJ Dawe says:

    This is a great article, and full of excellent information. I’m glad you delved deeper than I was able to. And that you posted that picture of castoreum. Excellent to get a visual.

    One thing Fast Food Nation brings up about the use of cochineal extract (derived from the crushed bodies of insects) is that it violates kosher laws. So another group is prevented from knowing what they’re ingesting.

    And how realistic is it to avoid anything with natural flavoring? That would mean cutting out processed food of any kind. Which isn’t a bad idea. But adds a tremendous layer of difficulty to a person’s life, especially if they travel at all.

    And you’re right, the term “natural” – which I believe is entirely unregulated in its use – is incredibly deceptive.

    • Maggie says:

      Thank you, TJ; I really do appreciate your commenting. Your piece was, I believe, the only one I found that treated the castoreum issue with more than an “ew gross” point of view. Good point, too, about the realities of cutting out all processed food.
      Cheers,
      Maggie

      • TJ Dawe says:

        And yours is the first article on the subject I’ve found that doesn’t feature a picture of a beaver.

        And it is possible to cut out processed foods. I’m on the road a fair bit – I’m a touring performer. Being a vegetarian offers a definite set of hurdles. But I know two touring performers who are raw food vegans, and I’ve never once heard them complain about finding enough to eat. And they’re in great shape. The infrastructure of our society makes it harder to eat non-processed foods, but not impossible. The more of us who go for that option will increase the market demand, and maybe things will change. Little by little. Eventually.

  5. spencer says:

    Dude, awesome write up! Very interesting.

  6. muriel says:

    how can they get enough “natural flavoring” do they raise beavers in labs or do they trap them in the wild extract the product & let them loose??????

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  12. Oh wow, this article is really SO illuminating and of course, cringe worthy. It really opens your eyes, however, about what the *#&# is in our food. You’d think “natural” versus “artificial” would be better, but honestly, I think I’d prefer something artificial.

    Thanks for such a hilarious yet absolutely informative article about castoreum. I’m writing a post about reading food labels for my blog and will be linking back to you and quoting you, if that’s okay.
    -Dana

  13. WeedScientist says:

    How is the castoreum harvested? Is it really someones job to express beaver anal glands? Does it come from live beavers or dead beavers?
    Enquiring minds want to know.

    • lifeinaskillet says:

      That’s a good question. I’d like to think some veterinary technician could make a little over minimum wage to express beavers’ anal glands, like they had to do for our puppy on one occasion – and then it could be considered vegetarian, right? ;)

      But the anal sacs are removed from beavers raised for their fur; it’s the second most valuable part of the animal. Call is the value-add proposition of the animal. There is an argument in using as many parts of an animal possible, if it is going to be killed for our use. But that “natural flavors” designation is ridiculous – we have a right to know what ingredients are in manufactured food and make the choices we’re comfortable with.

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  15. Sue says:

    OH HELL NO! I am a vegetarian & I don’t want to eat anything from the killing of an animal! I think I’m going to be SICK! What a despicable bunch of liars! I want to KNOW what the heck is in my food! Bastards!!

    • anthony says:

      The sad thing is you vegetarians will always be eating something from animals, what you don’t understand is that it’s never going to change. yes this whole raspberry thing is pretty terrible but it’s not the only substance that uses animal bi-products so your hope to help the animals is a waste of time. you’ll always like something that contains an animal bi-product, which is just going to help the demand for the product

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  17. wiblebearet says:

    This statement is misleading: “since castoreum is the product of a beaver’s anal glands”.

    Castoreum is secretion of the castor sac, used in combination with the beaver’s urine during scent marking of territory. Of course it has strong scent (and flavor) for this very purpose. And exactly how is this not a natural product?

    • zenihama says:

      I don’t think anyone is denying that castoreum is a “natural product”. It is certainly natural as in coming from nature rather than a lab. The problem, as our blogger points out:
      If a product has “natural flavor” listed on a package [we tend to assume] it has some relationship to the flavor of the product.
      I’m guilty too, of assuming that the “natural flavor” on the raspberry cordial ingredient list would be have been derived from an actual raspberry. More importantly, this incorrect assumption can lead vegetarians and vegans to unwittingly ingest substances derived from animals.

      Great article!

  18. Djn says:

    On a side note, the historical use of … anything, really, isn’t “homeopathic”. Homeopathy means something fairly specific: Take something that produces the symptoms you want to cure, and dilute it in water way way past the point where there’s nothing left. Use the water as a cure. (Obviously, this does nothing beyond placebo – though the placebo effect can be useful in itself).

    What Pliny dealt with was fairly different – he wanted to use significant amounts of stuff, and preferred things that countered the symptoms. (Though roman medicine also had a whole lot of weird magic in it.)

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  21. Hime Kushiro says:

    Wow, talk about informative. I have been vegan for almost a year now, and have never regreted that decision, but the more research I do into FDA laws and such, the more I realize how truly ignorant I am of what I actually buy at the market. From now on, I’m going to keep my eye out for so called ‘natural’ flavors.

    Thanks so much! – Hime

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  27. David Howell says:

    What is more natural than sugar? Yet, according to the latest National Geographic, sugar is toxic in anything more than minimal quantities. And it is added to virtually all processed foods and beverages. It is a (the?) primary cause of obesity, diabetes and numerous other ailments around the world. And there are probably more than a billion people addicted to it. We are all far too naive and innocent about what we are being fed.

    • Joshua Spezeski says:

      The scary thing is that, if you really knew what was in everything you eat or how old certain foods really are, you would never eat again

    • Jenny Bridge says:

      Just re the sugar, it prompts you to wonder whether one day we’ll look back in horror on our carefree consumption of it in the same way as we look back on the carefree consumption of cigarettes (just watch an episode of ‘Mad Men’ to get a feel for how we’ve changed in that department!

      Also it is interesting how easily language can influence us falsely. “Natural” seems so reassuring, yet there are many dangerous natural things. “Chemical”, “Synthetic”, “Genetically Modified” or “Processed” are often seen as sinister and scary but can also indicate real improvement and benefit.

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  30. Kyle Van der Hosen says:

    What most folks don’t realize is that
    1) Beaver are a vital part of the ecosystem and are systematically being destroyed for fur and flavors.
    2) Good luck finding anything out at AgroLaboratories. Good luck finding anything on this black market.
    3) There is a critical need to support beaver conservation and end poaching.

  31. JaneB says:

    I cant help but comment on this. I found a few sites post pictures of products from specific brands… does this mean they have this nasty ingredient? I am a vegan and I have been consuming 2 products that are pictured in TJ Dawe’s article. I was assured there was no animal ingredients. I really hope not…

    Scared.

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  36. Steven says:

    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.

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