A Brief History of Castoreum, the Beaver Butt Secretion Used as Flavoring

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iStock

In September 2013, popular blogger “The Food Babe” released a video proclaiming that beavers “flavor a ton of foods at the grocery store with their little butthole!" Since then, the internet has been crowded with alarmist posts saying that beaver’s butts are used to flavor everything from soft drinks to vanilla ice cream. The culprit behind this scare is a flavorant called castoreum—but what exactly is it, and is it worth all the fuss?

WHAT IS CASTOREUM?

Castoreum is a substance secreted by male and female Alaskan, Canadian, and Siberian beavers from pouchlike sacs located near the base of their tails (castor is the word for beaver in Latin). Beavers can’t see or hear very well, but they have a great sense of smell—and as a result of their castoreum glands, they also smell great. They use their castoreum in part to mark their territory, secreting it on top of mounds of dirt they construct on the edges of their home turf. (The castoreum squirting out is apparently so loud, you can hear it if you’re standing nearby.) Beavers also use the fatty, waxy secretion to waterproof their fur.

An odorous combination of vanilla and raspberry with floral hints, castoreum carries information about a beaver’s health and helps to make distinctions between family members and outsiders. Beavers are so interested in the smell that historically, fur trappers would bait traps with castoreum.

HOW WAS IT USED?

Dried castoreum on display in a German museum
Dried castoreum on display in a museum.

When castoreum is fresh, it’s a fluid that ranges in color from yellow and milky to grey and sticky, depending on the type of beaver and its gender. In a live animal, this fluid is milked and dried to a solid for perfume making. In a dead animal, the entire castoreum gland is removed and, traditionally, preserved by smoking it over a wood fire.

For much of its history, castoreum was used as a medicine. Roman women inhaled the fumes of castoreum burned in lamps because they believed it would induce abortions (it didn’t). Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine abbess, mystic, and scholar, wrote that powdered beaver “testicles” drunk in wine would reduce a fever; the castoreum gland, when dried, is easily mistaken for testes. Castoreum has also been used to treat headaches, which makes sense given that it contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin.

The colonization of America led into an increase in the availability of beaver pelts, which were used to make fine hats all over Europe, and to a resurgence of interest in castoreum as medicine. Sold in drugstores and pharmacies, it was recommended for earaches, toothaches, colic, gout, inducing sleep, preventing sleep, and general strengthening of the brain. It was also in the 19th century that the substance began to be used in the perfume industry as a fixative—an ingredient that makes other scents smell better and last longer.

By the end of the 19th century, the demand for pelts and castoreum was so great that North American beavers were on the edges of extinction. In 1894, a representative of the Hudson Bay Company, a major beaver pelt and castoreum trading firm, said: "The beaver’s days are numbered. He cannot coexist with civilization.”

IS IT STILL BEING USED TODAY?

According to The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, castoreum was first used as a food additive in the early 20th century, but is now rarely, if ever, used in the mass-produced flavor industry. Nevertheless, the FDA considers it a “natural flavor,” since it is derived from a natural source, and can be used to add fruity strawberry or raspberry notes, or as substitute for vanilla (the compounds come from the beaver's diet of bark and leaves). One of the few places it's reliably found is the Swedish schnapps BVR HJT.

Beavers are generally no longer hunted for their pelts or castoreum, so to acquire the sticky stuff, beavers must be anesthetized and the castoreum gland milked by a human. The process was described as “pretty gross” by Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University who is no stranger to beaver butts; she noted that the goo has a consistency somewhat like molasses. Due to the inconvenience and expense of harvesting castoreum from live beavers, the substance is now seldom used. According to Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, the annual industry consumption is very low—around 300 pounds—whereas the consumption of natural vanillin is over 2.6 million pounds annually. When castoreum is used, it's far more likely to be in the profitable fragrance industry rather than in the foods we eat.

"In the flavor industry, you need tons and tons of material to work with," flavor chemist Gary Reineccius told NPR's The Salt. "It's not like you can grow fields of beavers to harvest. There aren't very many of them. So it ends up being a very expensive product—and not very popular with food companies."

So while it's hard to know what foods or fragrances contain castoreum, there is very little of it out there. It may be worth saving your alarm for another topic—or simply sparing a thought for the beaver.

See Which Ingredients Cooks From Around the World Love Most

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iStock

Food is incredibly regionally specific, and cuisines have been refined over millennia based on what ingredients have been available and what local cooks have come up with. Even though global trade has made the same spices and other flavor staples available virtually anywhere in the world, Mexican food still tastes radically different from Chinese food, and Italian food from Irish food. We know this intuitively—few of us pick up a bottle of soy sauce thinking we’ll use it in a traditional Italian pasta dish—but it’s still fascinating to see a breakdown of just which ingredients certain cuisines have cornered the market on, as you can in these charts.

Nathan Yau of FlowingData visualized the most-used ingredients in 20 different cuisines, using data on ingredients from Yummly to figure out what distinct flavors and ingredients country-specific cuisines gravitate towards.

Across the world, salt is king. It’s the most-used ingredient in 75 percent of the cuisines Yau looked at, and the only cuisine in which it doesn’t appear in the top five most-used ingredients is Korean food—but, like in other Asian cuisines, Korean recipes use soy sauce more than any other ingredient, and that in itself is very salty.

Because so many cuisines rely heavily on the same ingredients, like soy sauce and salt, Yau also calculated the ingredients most specific to each cuisine: the ones disproportionately used in one country’s traditional cuisine. This is where you start to get a picture of the kind of ingredients we associate heavily with particular regionally specific dishes. Mexican food relies on tortillas; Greek food, feta cheese; Korean, kimchi; Thai, lemongrass; Russian, beets; and Cajun, andouille sausage. Some ingredients may come as a bit of a surprise, though. Southern cooking in the U.S. uses vanilla extract more than other cuisines do, and the French love shallots. Cajun cooks are big fans of celery ribs, and somehow, though numerous cuisines use onions heavily, Brazilian cooks use them slightly more than anyone else.

The data relies on Yummly recipes, so the results are limited to what the recipe recommendation site has available. It's possible that home cooks working in each cuisine do something slightly different that might move the data in another direction. But, since Yummly currently has more than 2 million recipes available, it seems like a relatively large snapshot of cooking options.

Explore the interactive graphic and learn more at FlowingData.

15 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of The Great British Baking Show

Netflix
Netflix

by Sarah Dobbs

If you’re an American fan of The Great British Bake Off you probably know it better as The Great British Baking Show (though its most devoted fans simply call it GBBO, which saves a lot of time). While its ninth season just kicked off on England’s Channel 4, American audiences are only now just getting caught up on season eight via Netflix. And with new hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig taking over for Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, plus Prue Leith taking over for Mary Berry as host, the latest incarnation of the show looks a lot different.

A bona fide global sensation, the baking competition has the power to cause otherwise rational human beings to immediately run to their nearest supermarket in search of obscure ingredients like psyllium or Amarula cream liqueur. It’s a charming, retro, warming hug of a TV show. But how much do you know about what goes on behind the scenes? Without destroying any of your illusions, here are some secrets about how the producers whip up one of the world's most beloved cooking shows.

1. THE REASON WHY IT HAS TWO DIFFERENT NAMES IS SIMPLE.

A scene from The Great British Bake Off
Netflix

If you’ve ever wondered why the series is called The Great British Bake Off in England and The Great British Baking Show in America, the answer is simple: Pillsbury. The Pillsbury Bake Off, which kicked off in 1949, is probably America’s most famous baking contest. And the company didn’t want there to be any confusion among viewers, hence The Great British Baking Show.

2. THE OVENS ALL HAVE TO BE TESTED EVERY DAY.

It’s difficult enough to make a cake that Paul Hollywood won’t declare either under- or over-baked without having to worry about whether your oven is working properly. So for every day of filming, every oven has to be tested. And because this is a baking show, they’re tested with cakes. Yes, every day every oven has a Victoria sponge cake cooked in it, to make sure everything’s working exactly as it should be.

3. EVERY TIME SOMEONE OPENS AN OVEN DOOR, THERE'S A CAMERA WATCHING THEM.

To make sure they catch all the drama, GBBO producers insist that every time a bake is put into or taken out of an oven, the moment must be caught on camera. So whenever a baker wants to put their goodies into an oven, or check if they’re ready to come out, they need to grab someone to make sure the moment gets captured on film. (Which must be a hassle for the first couple of weeks, when there are more than 10 bakers all trying their best to produce a perfect bake at once.)

4. THE CONTESTANTS HAVE TO WEAR THE SAME CLOTHES ALL WEEKEND.

It’s a minor thing, but have you ever noticed that the bakers wear the same clothes for an entire episode, even though it’s shot over two days? For continuity purposes, the contestants are asked to wear the same outfits for the entire weekend. If you’re the kind of baker who ends up with flour all over your shirt whenever you bake up a loaf of bread, the second day of filming could be a bit of a nightmare.

"Luckily they change the aprons so we don't look like a Jackson Pollock painting by the end of it," 2013 champion Frances Quinn told Cosmopolitan. "I think layers [is the answer], but even then you still have to wear what you had on, on top. Difficult."

5. THE CONTESTANTS DON’T HAVE A LOT OF DOWNTIME.

Having any time to spare is not something that season seven contestant Jane Beedle remembers happening regularly for the contestants. "Maybe once or twice, and when they did we would just sit and have a cup of tea and chat with the people around us,” she told the Mirror. "They don't like it if you have nothing to do, so they try and make the challenges as difficult as possible to keep you busy."

6. THE TEMPERATURE IN THE TENT CAN MAKE OR BREAK A BAKE.

Sue Perkins, Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, and Frances Quinn in 'The Great British Bake Off'
BBC

Forget setting the oven to the correct temperature—the temperature inside the tent is just as important to a bake. "It's completely alien to your own kitchen at home,” Quinn told Cosmopolitan. “The temperature fluctuates—you'd be making a meringue and it would start raining, or we'd try and make pastry and it would be 27 degrees outside. The technical challenges and lack of time and lack of fridge and work space are the enemy on that show."

7. THE ILLUSTRATIONS ARE CREATED BY TOM HOVEY, AFTER THE EPISODE HAS FILMED.

You know those fun illustrations of the confections that pop up when each baker explains what they’re going to make that day? Those are all drawn by illustrator Tom Hovey. He was working as a video editor on the first season of GBBO when the producers realized they needed an extra visual element—so he offered his illustration skills. And while we see the illustrations on screen before the bakers attempt to make them a reality, Hovey told the BBC he draws them “a pack of photos of the finished bakes from the set after each episode has been filmed … I sketch out all the bakes quickly in pencil to get the details, form and shape I am after. I then work these up by hand drawing them all in ink, then they’re scanned and colored digitally, and then I add the titles and ingredient arrows. It's a fairly well streamlined process now.”

Even if a bake goes horribly wrong, Hovey said his “illustrations are a representation of what the bakers hope to create. Even if the bakers don't produce what they’ve intended to I have a degree of artistic license to make them look good.”

8. THE CONTESTANTS DON’T INTERACT WITH THE JUDGES VERY MUCH.

“They very much tried to keep it unbiased,” Quinn said about how the bakers don’t spend much time interacting with the judges. “We saw a lot more of Mel and Sue. Mary and Paul would purely come in to do what we called the royal tour—where they'd come in and find out what you were making, and then they'd come back in for judging. You're not in the same hotel having sleepovers! You form more of a relationship after the show when you see them at things like BBC Good Food or whatever—but they need to keep their distance [on the show]. They're there as judges."

9. MAKING SURE THAT THE TECHNICAL CHALLENGE IS ACTUALLY POSSIBLE IS ONE PERSON'S JOB.

Sandi Toksvig in 'The Great British Bake Off'
Netflix

Another vital behind-the-scenes role is that of the food researcher. It’s down to them to make sure that the elaborate concoction the judges have decided the bakers have to whip up is actually possible, given the ingredients, instructions, and time the bakers will be allowed.

The tent presents its own challenges, too, because it could be hot or cold, depending on the weather, and it tends to have quite a wobbly floor, which can make delicate decorating work trickier than it might otherwise seem. “The tent is just mocked up, so the floor is really bumpy and bouncy because you’d got so many camera guys running around,” Quinn told the Irish Examiner.

10. THE SHOW GOT INTO SOME TROUBLE FOR ITS PARTNERSHIP WITH SMEG.

Part of GBBO’s homey charm has to do with the setup of the tent where the bakers do their cooking, and few appliances spell “retro” as well as a colorful Smeg refrigerator. A viewer fed up with what they described as “blatant product promotion” wrote to the Radio Times to complain, and an investigation was launched into the series’ agreement with Smeg. As BBC guidelines state that a series may "not accept free or reduced cost products" in return for "on-air or online credits, links or off-air marketing,” the broadcaster ended up having to write the company a check for all the times their product got some screen time.

11. THERE ARE NEVER ANY LEFTOVERS.

The judges only take a mouthful of every bake, which seems to leave an awful lot of leftover pastries, cakes, and ridiculously complicated bread sculptures. But don’t worry—none of it goes to waste. “The crew eats all the leftovers," Beedle told The Mirror. "We get some brought to us in the green room so we can taste each other's bakes, but it's only slithers."

12. HUNDREDS OF SEASON FIVE VIEWERS WROTE IN TO COMPLAIN ABOUT “SABOTAGE.”

Midway through season five, contestant Iain Watters had a bit of an issue with his Baked Alaska. Realizing that his ice cream had not yet set, he threw the entire dish into the trash rather than serve the judges a subpar dessert and was sent home as a result. Footage from the episode made is seem as if fellow contestant Diana Beard had removed his ice cream from the freezer. Beard left the show at just about the same time due to health issues, but some viewers (811, to be exact) smelled sabotage—and wrote in to the show’s producers to complain. Media watchdog group Ofcom looked into the matter, but said that they had assessed viewers’ complaints and “they do not raise issues warranting further investigation under Ofcom’s rules.”

Paul Hollywood took to Twitter to clear up what became known as “bingate,” tweeting: “Ice cream being left out of fridge last night for 40 seconds did not destroy Iain’s chances in the bake off, what did was his decision BIN.”

13. MARY BERRY WATCHED BREAKING BAD BACKSTAGE.

Although it looks pretty nonstop on screen, there’s quite a bit of downtime during the show’s filming days. Especially for the show’s judges and hosts. Former judge Mary Berry had one unique way of passing the time: binge-watching Breaking Bad. “It’s shocking,” Berry told The Telegraph. “Then you get into it and you think: ‘Have I seen episode four or five?’ You get hooked. It’s better than motor racing, which [my husband] Paul watches—though I’d prefer Downton Abbey.” She’d apparently rope former hosts Mel and Sue into watching it with her on occasion. What better way to relax during a long day of baking than by watching Walter White, umm, baking?

14. THE APPLICATION FORM IS NO JOKE.

Fancy your chances in the Bake Off tent? If you’ve been inspired by the show and reckon you could nab a couple of Star Baker titles, brace yourself: The application form is a whopping eight pages long, and it’s full of probing questions. As well as giving details of your hobbies, lifestyle, and level of experience with various types of baked goods, it also asks applicants to describe their baking style, and answer a couple of existential-sounding questions.

"It's a long application form. I think it's designed to put some people off, essentially," fourth season contestant Beca Lyne-Pirkis said. "It asks you about everything you have done, good and bad. It's designed to get information about your character, stories, mishaps and successes."

Still fancy applying? Though submissions are not open at the moment, you can keep your eyes open for when the next batch of contestants are being accepted here.

15. THE AUDITION PROCESS IS EVEN MORE GRUELING.

If you happen to make it through the application process, the audition process is even more difficult. “Every person who makes it into the marquee has passed a rigorous series of tests,” GBBO creator and executive producer Anna Beattie told The Telegraph. In addition to the application form, The Telegraph reported that there is “a 45-minute telephone call with a researcher, bringing two bakes to an audition in London, a screen test and an interview with a producer. If they get through that, there is a second audition baking two recipes … in front of the cameras, and an interview with the show psychologist to make sure they can cope with being filmed for up to 16 hours a day.”

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