Have you ever found out something you immediately wished you hadn't? Well, I just did. And if that scares you, don't read any further.
Okay, you've been warned.
In my tireless search to keep you informed about what you're eating these days, I made a discovery that.......I found something which........let's seeeeeee........how can I say this?.......how about, “OMG! This is so gross!”
Ever hear of castoreum? Yeah, me neither. At first glance, you tend to think it's related to castor oil or something else made from the castor bean. Oh, but I wish it were so. This is worse.
Castoreum, it turns out, is a sticky yellowish-brown substance produced by the castor sac in adult beavers. Beavers have a pair of castor sacs and they are located right there by the anal glands under the base of the animal's tail. The beavers use castoreum – mixed with urine – to mark their territory. (Here comes the gross part.) People use it as a food additive!
That's right, boys and girls, there are people walking among us who actually go out and lift up beaver tails, milk those anal glands, and extract that fluid. (Excuse me now while I go wash my hands. They suddenly feel yucky just from typing that sentence.) Now, they don't get a lot of the stuff in total. Just under 300 pounds a year. I don't know how much castoreum an average adult beaver produces, and I really don't care. I've read where the harvest is rather meager because neither the milker nor the milkee much enjoys the process. I can certainly see where that would be the case.
And what, exactly, do these beaver-butt-milkers do with that extract? Well, folks, they say if you put your nose right down there in the beaver's business end, it smells like a musky vanilla. So there you have it. Next time you eat something that says “vanilla-flavored”........
Sadly, I'm not kidding. According to the FDA, castoreum produced by beaver butts is a GRAS food additive. GRAS means “generally recognized as safe.” Personally, I think it's a GROSS food additive, and that statement shouldn't require any further clarification.
And it gets better! Because it is an FDA-approved GRAS food additive, manufacturers aren't required to tell you about it when they stick it in your vanilla ice cream or whatever. All they have to do is list it as a “natural flavoring.” And, brother, it don't get any more natural than that, does it?
Oh, by the way, castoreum is also used to enhance the flavor and aroma of cigarettes. If you haven't already decided to quit, think about that one the next time you light up. “Mmmmmm! Smells like beaver butt! Tastes like it, too!” Never mind lighting up a Camel; you just lit up a beaver! GAHHHHHHH!!!!
And people wonder why I'm so adamant about making everything fresh from scratch. I can tell you with great assurance that when I add vanilla to whipped cream or cake frosting or whatever, it comes from a bean and not from the south end of a northbound beaver.
Go on, now. Go get yourself some store-bought vanilla wafers and think about it.