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Grocery store vanilla flavoring doesn’t come from beaver glands
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Grocery store vanilla flavoring doesn’t come from beaver glands

  • PublishedJune 3, 2024


While it’s possible to use beaver gland secretions to make vanilla flavoring, it’s an expensive process and not what you’ll find in the grocery store.

If you’re looking for vanilla at the grocery store, you’ll usually find two different options. Pure vanilla extract, the more expensive option made from real vanilla beans, and imitation vanilla or vanilla essence, the cheaper option made with artificial vanilla. 

Some people online have warned for years that vanilla flavoring, both off the shelf and in popular snacks like ice cream and cake, comes from the anal glands of beavers

Multiple VERIFY readers, including Chelsea, asked us if artificial vanilla flavoring really comes from beaver butts and if this purported source of vanilla flavoring can be hidden on product labels.

THE QUESTION

Does artificial vanilla flavoring at the grocery store come from beaver glands?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, artificial vanilla flavoring at the grocery store does not come from beaver glands.

WHAT WE FOUND

Beaver glands do produce a compound that has been used as vanilla flavoring in the past. But it’s too expensive for manufacturers to use in everyday vanilla-flavored products that you would find at the grocery store, like cake mixes or ice cream.

Instead, artificial vanilla flavoring usually comes from a compound called vanillin, which is much cheaper to make. Commercial vanillin is made through chemical synthesis in a lab and through plant tissues, according to the National Library of Medicine’s PubChem and BAKERpedia.

The compound produced by beavers is called castoreum, which is a secretion produced by scent glands called castor sacs beneath the base of a beaver’s tail, according to Evergreen State College’s Profiles in Plant Chemical Ecology. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says castoreum is safe for human consumption and has approved its use in food as a flavoring agent.

In the early 20th century, castoreum was added to some foods as vanilla-raspberry flavoring, according to Smithsonian Magazine. However, castoreum has largely fallen out of favor as a vanilla additive.

One reason for this is that castoreum is far more expensive for manufacturers to use than other artificial vanilla alternatives.

“It’s so expensive, and so challenging, and the concentrations are fairly low in these beaver glands,” Bryan Quoc Le, Ph.D., a food scientist at Pacific Lutheran University, told VERIFY. “It’s really not worth it to produce any kind of flavoring from them.”

Le added, “You might as well just get vanilla beans at that point.” Artificial vanilla exists because vanilla beans are rare compared to many other spices, making pure vanilla extract more expensive to make.

About 99% of the world’s artificial vanilla flavoring comes from synthetic sources such as vanillin, “a cheaper and less labor-intensive alternative to harvesting vanilla beans or castoreum,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Le also said vanillin, the compound that elicits the flavor and smell of vanilla, is “fairly dirt cheap to produce.”

Smithsonian Magazine notes that some food manufacturers also may not want to use castoreum because it could not be certified as kosher, which is a term used to refer to food that fits Jewish dietary law. Le says products with castoreum also can’t be vegan or vegetarian. That makes castoreum unappealing to manufacturers wishing to make their products more broadly marketable.

Le also says if manufacturers do use castoreum, they are unlikely to hide it among “natural flavoring” on their product labels, as some people online have suggested. Instead, they have reason to clearly identify if their product is made with castoreum, vanilla bean or artificial vanillin.

“If anyone is putting castoreum in their food product … it would be so expensive that you would want to even just tell people that just because it would be so unique and different,” Le said. “And then, of course, there’s the natural flavorings formed from vanilla beans, which again, you would really want to tell people that just because it’s actually a benefit to show that it’s naturally sourced from these plant-based products.”

These labeling practices can be seen in real products.

For example, the House of Tamworth Eau de Musc liquor directly advertises that it uses “the oil extract from the castor gland of the North American beaver.” A type of Swedish liquor also directly advertises its use of castoreum.

McCormick, meanwhile, says its imitation vanilla flavor uses artificial vanillin.

Vanilla made from actual vanilla beans is usually called “pure vanilla extract” on the store shelf or in ingredient lists, according to Healthline. “Vanilla essence,” on the other hand, is just another term for imitation vanilla flavor or artificial vanilla.

Anyone who is interested in products made from castoreum should go shopping for scents. Castoreum is more commonly used in perfume products.

This story is also available in Spanish / Lee este artículo también en español: No, el sabor artificial de vainilla que compras en la tienda no proviene de glándulas de castor

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