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 museum.Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

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.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Cyber Monday has arrived, and with it comes some amazing deals. This sale is the one to watch if you are looking to get low prices on the latest Echo Dot, Fire Tablet, video games, Instant Pots, or 4K TVs. Even if you already took advantage of sales during Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday still has plenty to offer, especially on Amazon. We've compiled some the best deals out there on tech, computers, and kitchen appliances so you don't have to waste your time browsing.

Computers and tablets

Amazon

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet 64GB; $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet 64GB; $84 (save $35)

- HP Pavilion x360 14 Convertible 2-in-1 Laptop; $646 (save $114)

- HP Pavilion Desktop, 10th Gen Intel Core i3-10100 Processor; $469 (save $81)

- Acer Nitro 5 Gaming Laptop; $973 (save $177)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

- Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones; $200 (save $100)

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- JBL Charge 4 - Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $120 (save $10)

- Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker II; $79 (save $50)

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Video Games

Sony

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- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

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TECH, GADGETS, AND TVS

Samsung/Amazon

- Amazon Fire TV Stick; $30 (save $20)

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- Samsung 75-Inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $898 (save $300)

home and Kitchen

Ninja/Amazon

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- Instant Pot Max Pressure Cooker 9 in 1; $80 (save $120)

- Shark IZ362H Cordless Anti-Allergen Lightweight Stick Vacuum; $170 (save $110)

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The Reason McDonald’s Doesn’t Sell McRib Sandwiches Year-Round

McDonald's
McDonald's

McDonald's McRib sandwich is officially back. Some people think the McRib is a 70-ingredient abomination, while others can't get enough of the barbecue pork sandwich. Whether you love it or hate it, the divisive dish always generates buzz whenever it comes back to menus after a periodic hiatus. According to CNN, the novelty surrounding the McRib isn't just a plus that comes with its seasonal status—it's the driving force behind its appeal.

McDonald's has built an empire around serving comforting, familiar foods that are consistent across thousands of locations. That business model doesn't apply to the McRib. Customers can't just walk into their local McDonald's restaurant any time of year and expect to find one: They have to follow the news and/or use online McRib trackers to keep tabs on the elusive sandwich.

Though the McRib has a devoted fan base, it will likely never secure a permanent spot on the McDonald's menu. That's because fast food companies know that having at least one seasonal item is good for business. When diners know that something is only around for a limited window, they're more motivated to make time to buy it than they would be if it was always there waiting for them. Temporary dishes can also add variety to a menu that's relied on the same staples for decades.

It took a long time for the McRib to grow into a cult sensation. When it first appeared in McDonald's stores in 1981, sales were underwhelming, and it was taken off menus in 1985. When it resurfaced in 1994, it had nostalgia and novelty on its side, and people were more willing to give the rib-shaped mystery meat a chance. By 2005, it was popular enough to become a recurring menu item.

The sandwich will return to select U.S. McDonald's restaurants nationwide on Wednesday, December 2, 2020, ringing in the start of McRib season. But as fans know too well, the item won't be around for long, so pop an antacid tablet and pick one up while you still can.