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

iStock
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.

Keep Your Kitchen Clean With This Spoon Rest That Clips Straight Onto Your Pot

Amazon
Amazon

No matter how clean you keep things between meals, your organized, tidy kitchen can easily turn to chaos when it's time to start cooking. You can take steps to mitigate this, like setting up a mise en place and cleaning as you go, but some messy kitchen habits are hard to avoid. One of them is resting a dirty spoon on the counter while making stews, sauces, or anything else that requires lots of tasting and stirring as it cooks on the stove. If wiping off your spoon after each dip is an unrealistic goal, there's another way to stay neat.

The Trudeau flex pot clip, currently available on Amazon, is a spoon rest that keeps utensils raised off clean surfaces. It's made from tough stainless steel and silicone that stays cool to the touch even when attached to a pot of boiling water. The opening is big enough to hold bulky cooking tools like wooden spoons, tongs, and pasta forks. There's also a small divot for securing smaller items, like regular silverware.

Spoon in a spoon rest attached to pot.
Amazon

Strong enough to withstand temperatures of up to 482°F, the pot clip is a great tool for stovetop cooking. But even if you're not cooking with fire, the accessory can help you maintain a clean kitchen. Clip it to the side of your bowl before mixing cookie dough, or use it as a spot to hold the ladle for your punch bowl. And when you're no longer using it, you can toss it in the dishwasher for easy clean-up.

You can purchase a Trudeau flex pot clip for $8 on Amazon. If you're looking for more tools to round out your kitchen inventory, here are some affordable basics to consider.

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!

10 Frank Facts About Hot Dogs

StephanieFrey/iStock via Getty Images
StephanieFrey/iStock via Getty Images

Americans love a good hot dog—so much so that, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, we consume about 20 billion of them a year, which works out to about 70 hot dogs per person. In celebration of National Hot Dog Month (July) and National Hot Dog Day (July 17), here are some facts about franks to enjoy during your own summer barbecues.

1. Hot dogs have a surprisingly contentious origin.

Sausages have a history that stretches back to at least the time of Homer’s Odyssey, but the origin of the hot dog is just as tricky to pin down. There are multiple claimants to the invention of the hot dog, each with a slightly different innovation. Was the hot dog invented by the first person to shorten the name of German dachshund sausages to “hot dogs,” or the first person to put a sausage in a bread roll, or the first person to create a dedicated bun for holding a sausage? All of these creators have laid claim to the title of Hot Dog Inventor, but none have been conclusively verified.

2. Hot dogs might be sandwiches.

Hot dogs are tricky to define in another way as well, and both the general public and official organizations seem to have very strong opinions on whether hot dogs fall into the category of sandwiches or not. The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council says hot dogs are their own entities, but Merriam-Webster supports calling a hot dog a sandwich, based on the fact that it is just a piece of split bread with a filling.

3. Los Angelenos consume the most hot dogs per year.


iStock

While you might expect Midwestern grill-masters to buy up the most hot dogs, the actual top consumers are Los Angelenos, who purchase 34 million pounds of franks a year. And Californians also top the per capita rankings: as of 2010, San Francisco consumed the most hot dogs per person per year.

4. Regional hot dog styles add a serious punch to the basic dog.

Chicago is famous for dogs with onion, relish, pepper, pickle, tomato, mustard, and celery salt, but Coney Island-style hot dogs with chili, cheese, mustard, and onions are popular in their eponymous region and in Michigan. The South prefers slaw and chili on its hot dogs, while wrapping them in bacon and deep frying are popular in other regions.

5. Japan has invented some colorful hot dogs.

The Japanese also love their original hot dog varieties, and black hot dogs took over the Tokyo market in 2013. The bun and sausage are dyed with black charcoal ash, which apparently makes no difference to the flavor.

6. Hot dogs and baseball have a long history.

Sausages have been served at baseball games since at least the 1890s. One story says that they were first served at the ballpark by the German who owned the St. Louis Browns, while another story claims an ice cream vendor decided to switch his product on a particularly cold day at the ballpark. Either way, they're still going strong after more than 120 years.

7. Hot dogs are the headliners at America's most famous eating competition.


iStock

While legend has it that the first hot dog eating contest was held in 1916 to settle a casual bet—over who was the most patriotic, no less—the first recorded contest was in 1972. In that event, the winner ate 14 hot dogs in 12 minutes. In 2018, competitive eating legend—and now 12-time Nathan's champion Joey Chestnut—set a new event record, polishing off 74 hot dogs (and buns) in 10 minutes.

8. Hot dogs have been fed to royalty.

In 1939, the King and Queen of Great Britain visited Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in Hyde Park, New York. In true American spirit, the First Lady made sure to serve hot dogs during a picnic at their Hudson River property. Apparently, King George VI enjoyed them so much that he asked for seconds.

9. Hot dogs made Clara Bow famous.

To drum up business, the newly minted Nathan’s Famous hot dog restaurant at Coney Island hired a pretty redhead to serve its customers. Soon after, she was discovered by a vacationing talent scout, and became internationally famous as the silent film era's "It Girl," Clara Bow.

10. There is official hot dog etiquette.

The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council put out this video on the correct way to eat a hot dog. The whole video is worth a watch, but some highlights include: no ketchup if you're over the age of 18, no wine pairings, no utensils, and it should only take five bites to consume the entire hot dog (though you can take seven bites for a footlong). It might not be proper Emily Post material, but how can you argue with the "Queen of Wien"?

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER