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.

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

A Massive Beef Recall Due to E. Coli Might Affect Your Memorial Day Meal Plans

iStock/Kameleon007
iStock/Kameleon007

If your Memorial Day weekend plans involve grilling meat, you're going to want to take some extra precautions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that 62,112 pounds of raw beef are being recalled due to possible contamination with E. coli bacteria, which causes food poisoning.

The meat originated with the Aurora Packing Company of North Aurora, Illinois on April 19. Aurora Packing is recalling the products, which have an EST. 788 number on the USDA mark of inspection found on packaging and were shipped to stores around the country. The meat was packaged in multiple cuts, including ribeye and briskets.

Escherichia coli, better known as E. coli, is bacteria that affects the gastrointestinal system, causing cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, and other serious symptoms that can derail one's celebratory mood. If you think you've purchased any of the contaminated meat, it's recommended that you immediately discard it.

[h/t USA Today]

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