Say, Did That Strawberry Flavor Come From Beaver Butt?

Even though knowledge is power, there are some rather nasty things you just do not want to know about. Unfortunately, awareness of some of these things may, like, save the planet or prevent you from getting cancer or protect our food supply. So in that sense, it’s a really lucky thing that there exist people who are going to tell you the whole sordid story, refusing to spare your ears or eyes. Take my friend Wendee, for instance.

Wendee is a freelance science writer. Even though I am the most unscientific person around, she invited me to join her email group of science writers last year. Me, who avoided chemistry, biology and physics in high school, took Earth Science to fulfill the academic requirement AND EVEN THEN only retained one bit of knowledge from that class: how to gleek, as taught by my equally-unscientific pal Sandra. (I know I’ve gone on about the gleeking in another post but I really am proud of this talent. Ask anybody who has ever worked with me.)

However, eager to learn by osmosis, I joined Wendee’s group last summer. As expected, mixed in with the status updates and market information, there has been a fair amount of serious, scholarly, scientific conversation—until the other night. That was when I returned home from a long day of wine and work (no, not in that order), fired up my computer and found the following conversation in my inbox.

Useless (or, gross?) info of the day. Vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry “natural flavor” can come from the castor sacs near a beaver’s anus. And, worse, butter rum flavor (MY FAVORITE) comes from “civet absolute” — an actual scraping inside a civet’s anus. This is all in my article. – Wendee

I just don’t understand why they have to probe the asses of critters when there are actual vanilla beans, strawberries, raspberries, butter, and rum out there. Is it for cost reasons? How easy it to catch a freaking civet anyway…I should think it would be easier to pick some berries. – Miranda

Yeah!  How economical is it to trap beavers and raid their castor sacs?  Or do they raise them in captivity for this important purpose? And on a more profound level, why does extract of wildlife butt taste good to us? – Sharon

Beaver butt and civet anus? Are you kidding me? How am I ever going to eat ice cream again? (And now, how are you ever going to eat ice cream again?) Sharon has a very good point: why do these things taste good to us? We’re even willing to pay premium dinero for coffee beans that are dug out of civet poop. Say what?

Wendee will be sharing all sorts of information like this and more—oh, so much more— in her forthcoming article for Environmental Health Perspectives, due out in March or April. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a challenge. Incorporate the following sentence into an in-person conversation this week: “How economical is it to trap beavers and raid their castor sacs?” And then do report back with your socio-scientific results. Or maybe just a picture of the look on your conversation partner’s face.

Have any other gross facts to share with us? The door has been opened for you!

Comments

  1. says

    Hmm, I’d like to know how the scientists discovered this phenomenon in the first place – or perhaps I wouldn’t like to know! Speaking as someone who went to a school called Beaverwood School for Girls age 11-14, I’m surprised that this gem had previously passed me by! Never a dull moment on your blog, Laura!
    Debbie Young recently posted…Enter The Snow CatMy Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Right, hey? How do they know where to start looking? Or how many different animals did they have to violate to find this??!! And so funny that your school was called Beaverwood. I worked at Beaver Lumber for five years, 1988-1993. We had many other names for it…

    • Laura Zera says

      These are the kinds of things that kids point back to years later when they’re blaming you for scarring them, you know that, right?

  2. says

    For the record, no matter how much I want to be the symbol of coffee coolness, there is NO way I would spend money, let alone extra money, for coffee beans that have already been through the ringer. No flipping way. You’ve scared and scarred me now, Laura!

  3. John Grounds says

    Next time you enjoy a delightful piece of red velvet cake, consider that many red food dyes are made from carminic acid – the ground up shells of a south american beetle. As an alternative, you could go for the less appealingly named “red dye #40 – which is extracted from coal. Sometimes it’s better not to know.

    http://www.snopes.com/food/ingredient/bugjuice.asp

    • Laura Zera says

      And I do enjoy my red velvet cake… Actually, though, bug-sourced doesn’t gross me out too much. Coal seems very dicey, and I also thought that red dye #40 was a carcinogen (which is why I started tossing the maraschino cherries that come on desserts. Oh, and because they taste disgusting). Thanks for sharing, John!

    • Dot says

      Recently, my favorite soy beverage had a new carton design, “Great new taste!” Having many allergies, I sent an email, told them there was nothing wrong with the old taste, and noticed the addition of Natural Flavor on their ingredients list. I told them that it was my experience that when a company failed to identify the natural flavor. It was because it was something the consumer wouldn’t want, and that I had bought my last product from them.Hmm. . . .should’ve copied the FDA . Yeah, right!

  4. says

    I read this yesterday morning on my tablet BEFORE pouring my cup of coffee. When I did make it into the kitchen, I couldn’t help but wonder what essence of anus might be responsible for the flavors of some of my favorite coffee creamers. Needless to say, the old cup of Joe didn’t didn’t taste the same yesterday. In the past, I had two different students do fairly involved research papers on how many bug parts, etc. that the FDA allows in food. Neither of them dug deeper and covered how much butt is acceptable in what we eat… or maybe the students were just being polite ;)
    Jeri recently posted…JeriWB Writes: Finding Inspiration (Guest Post)My Profile

    • Laura Zera says

      Hahaha! There must be a student handbook that cautions against discussing animal butt-sourced food items. And, oh yeah, coffee creamers — I can’t even imagine.

  5. says

    The carmine/cochineal = red dye in Strawberry frappuccinos and other red things was a big news item recently, and is also in my article. Starbucks recently said they’d change to a tomato-based dye soon but not sure if they’ve made the switch yet. It also doesnt gross me out but vegans got all upset. HOWEVER, I had to post this link and info – that Japanese researchers have isolated vanilla from cow poop! :)
    http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Japanese_Researchers_Extract_Vanilla_From_Cow_Dung.html

    • Laura Zera says

      How do all of these researchers come up with these ideas, e.g. to search for flavors in the places they’re searching. Is there some kind of scientific tenet, “Animal poop is full of good stuff,” or something?!

    • Tamar Stratyevskaya says

      Personally, I’d rather have something isolated from cow poop — one more great use for this already very useful resource — than have anything be actually extracted from an animal’s anus, which they probably have to kill the poor animal to do. If poop, which nobody can avoid anyway, can be turned back into something edible, so be it, but why must we resort to torturing and killing our wildlife just to have a fake flavoring of a natural flavor much more easily obtainable? And does it mean that by eating these foods we might start producing beaver pheromone? Maybe that explains why all the cats in the neighborhood are attracted to me.

      • Laura Zera says

        “Maybe that explains why all the cats in the neighborhood are attracted to me” — LOL! The pied piper of cats, huh?

  6. says

    This is true: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castoreum

    But, if it makes you feel better, although the glands are located close to the business end of the intestine, they have nothing to do with it. These glands could just as easily be located elsewhere, but their location “there” makes it easier for the animal to mark their territory, which they also do urinating. And since I mentioned urine, do you know that the waste product Allantoin, which is present in the urine of most mammals except humans and apes, is extensively used in cosmetics, shampoos, toothpaste, etc? It is not isolated from the urine but rather it is produced by chemical synthesis. However, it’s the same product.

    • Laura Zera says

      Actually, that does make me feel a little bit better. Have to laugh at the name of the Scandinavian biscuits that use castoreum: “Bäverhojt”

      I did not know of the origins of Allantoin, though I’ve read it on my labels for years and years. Thanks for sharing more weird science, Rolando!

  7. says

    Oh.My.God how could I POSSIBLY have missed the reference to gleeking the first time I read this?!!! I was the BEST damn gleeker around, I’m telling you. We’ll have to have a contest when I come visit. :)

  8. Tamar Stratyevskaya says

    P.s. I graduated from Beaverton High School, in Beaverton, OR. Our football team were called the Beavers, and our mascot, of course, was the beaver. I think our whole school should get together and protest this!

    • Laura Zera says

      Beavers kill! And p.s., I used to work at Beaver Lumber in Vancouver, B.C. Mass protest, let’s do it!

  9. Gina says

    I have some raspberry flavoring that I bought to add to my coffee after the frothing the milk, it wasn’t that good. So today I thought it might be good mixed with iced tea and lime splice and it was pretty tasty. So I thought hey, some strawberry flavoring would be awesome. And then I found this! Ugh, looks like iced tea with lemon or lime.
    Ugh! who discovered this ass berry?

    • Laura Zera says

      Sorry to burst your flavor bubble, Gina… LOL! But I think you’ve coined a new term with “ass berry.” I’m going to use that. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Cher says

    I used to spend my free time wondering “how was the first loaf of bread invented?” Not anymore! Now it will be “who was the first person to explore a beaver’s ass and discover Essence of Strawberry????? Great! Now, to put my mind to better use, permanently!

  11. Martha Kaltenbach says

    That solves that mystery and I am pouring out my cup of Rum butter tea before the first sip – had this niggling feeling I wouldn’t like the answer to my query of how healthy is rum butter flavor.

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