By now you may have heard, thanks to Jamie Oliver and Dr. Oz, that castoreum is a natural flavor behind some of the products we consume. I use the word “behind” literally, since castoreum is the product of a beaver’s anal glands. Castoreum is totally unique, chemically speaking, to the beaver – not to be confused with that stinky defensive spray that comes from a skunk’s anal glands, or reason dogs walk in circles sniffing each other’s rear ends. Same place, different thing.
After doing a bit of online poking around, I’m declaring this NOT urban myth. The 2005 edition of industry handbook Fenaroli’s Flavor Ingredients reports the average part per million range of castoreum extract present in the following consumables: “Alcoholic beverages, Chewing gum, Frozen dairy, Gelatins and puddings, Gravies, Meat products, Nonalcoholic beverages, Soft Candy.” It’s not the only reputable source; the 1980 CRC Handbook of Food Additives states that castoreum adds “unusual notes to raspberry and strawberry.” I also found mention of castoreum in the 2000 edition of the Council of Europe’s Natural Sources of Flavorings, John Wright’s 2004 book Flavor Creation, and the 2011 volume of Leung’s Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients: Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics (this is the one I might be putting on my birthday wish list).
Less certain is products you may be consuming that contain castoreum. The blogosphere says it shows up in the ingredient list of raspberry-tasting items masked as “natural flavors.” I found this 2009 patent application for a product designed to improve the taste of the potassium salt that can be present in low-sodium items; castoreum is one of the hundred or more ingredients that may help it taste better. The problem is that the term “natural flavors” is a specific designation, defined by the FDA as:
the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.
Commercial recipes are intellectual property, protected by law – think how many people have tried to figure out the secret behind Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola. And no company, unless they are willing to face a public relations nightmare will admit to putting castoreum in the mix for whatever delicious thing they concoct. That would either be a public relations nightmare or a big-time profit decline.
To be honest, I’m not too concerned with how disgusting it may be. I’ve eaten things that still give me sense memory nightmares – the brussels sprouts creme brûlée I barely choked down at LL’s 50th birthday dinner, for example. Much, much, worse that was the limpet sashimi under the stars at the Molokai Ranch after an otherwise lovely and restful day. I’m not here to judge the relative ickiness of one animal product over another – is injesting castoreum any different from eating any other product from an animal? We eat round steaks, otherwise known as rump roast. Same place, different thing, right?
The point I find unacceptable is not in the use of castoreum; that’s a completely different debate. What’s objectionable is the complete lack of transparency behind the FDA’s “natural flavors” designation. A person who chooses to be vegan or vegetarian, or a person with celiac disease or food sensitivities, or a person who just really wants to know what goes in their bodies, can’t ever really choose to consume a manufactured product with “natural flavors” listed as an ingredient because that bag is just too big. Food manufacturer’s intellectual property is protected, sure, but consumers lose any way to know exactly what we are consuming.
Even the most well-intentioned person could make an erroneous assumption. Case in point: I remember watching another mom at a candy store during the 4th grade field trip to Sacramento. It was a looooong day, especially for the kids: 3-hour bus rides each way, tours of the Capitol building and Sutter’s Fort and a jaunt through the Train Museum. Small wonder, by the time we were let loose to go explore Old Town, the kids made a beeline to the candy store.
I know this woman; she generally keeps junk food away from her kids, makes sure they lots of fresh fruit and vegetables . . . all those good things. So there she was, carefully comparing ingredients in different flavored jelly beans. In what I thought it was a funny place to draw the line, those candies that listed “natural flavors” were fine for her daughter to choose from. Any with “artificial flavors” were banned. She made an assumption, like most of us probably do, that if a product has “natural flavor” listed on a package it has some relationship to the flavor of the product – and that’s NOT the case. That “natural flavor” can be anything from aloe to anise to castoreum to civet. Even in berry-flavored jelly beans.
I’ve got to be honest – I can’t help but wonder what genius figured out a beaver’s behind tastes like raspberry. I blame it on the ancient Roman Empire, where by 77 AD or so, when Pliny wrote his Natural History, castoreum already had a long and illustrious history as a homeopathic medication. He lists 66 uses for the extrude, as curing headache, neck ache, flatulence, constipation, asthma, and epilepsy, as well as a good depilatory. It was used in medicine well into the 18th century, when castor oil – so named to take advantage of castoreum’s popularity – took over in popularity. Small wonder that sometime over the last 2000 years or more someone wondered would happen if you added it to food . . .
Castoreum was, and still is, used in perfume making and is present in some homeopathic products. In these cases, castoreum is clearly labeled as an ingredient. That’s much more honesty than in the food manufacturing industry. Food manufacturing – that sounds like an oxymoron, but the truth is that processed food is manufactured to an astonishing degree. Consumers, beware.
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