Where does vanilla flavour come from? Viral TikTok about its origins will blow your mind

10 November 2020, 15:20

Where does vanilla flavouring come from?
Where does vanilla flavouring come from? Picture: @sloowmoee via TikTok
Jazmin Duribe

By Jazmin Duribe

Here's where imitation vanilla flavouring actually comes from.

Who knew TikTok could be so educational? We've learnt all the challenges, some viral dance moves and… where vanilla flavouring actually comes from.

For context, right now, there's a viral TikTok video going around which asks people to film their reactions to finding out where vanilla flavouring come from. Surely it's a vanilla plant or tree of some sort, right? WRONG.

TikTok user Sloowmoee enlightened his followers and instructed them to Google where vanilla flavouring comes from (whilst sipping on a Starbucks vanilla latte, of course). When he finds out the truth, he looks absolutely horrified, and screams: "No more vanilla!"

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Where does vanilla flavouring actually come from?

Brace yourself: apparently, a chemical compound used in vanilla flavouring and perfumes comes from the anal glands of beavers.

Vanilla flavouring can contain castoreum, which comes from a beaver's castor sacs. These castor sacs are found close to the beaver's anal glands right between the pelvis and base of the tail and are a mixture of gland secretions and urine. Nice.

According to a 2018 Vice investigation, beavers use the "yellowish oily fluid" to mark their territory and the tasty vanilla scent comes from the beaver's diet.

Extracting castoreum from a live beaver is not easy because they need to be milked in order to retrieve the substance, so they're often sedated or already dead. One question: how did anyone even discover this?

In 2013, Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University, told National Geographic exactly how castoreum is extracted: "I lift up the animal’s tail. I’m like, 'Get down there, and stick your nose near its bum.' People think I’m nuts. I tell them, 'Oh, but it’s beavers; it smells really good.'"

However, you'll be extremely happy to know that a lot of vanilla products containing castoreum have been swapped for the synthetic variety to make it vegan, kosher and a lot cheaper. At one point the demand for castoreum almost wiped the beaver population out.

A 2019 article from the University of Hertfordshire's centre for research into Topical Drug Delivery and Toxicology found that "synthetic vanillin accounts for about 94% of all vanilla flavouring used in the food industry (37,286 tons), with natural vanilla extract accounting for most of the remaining 6%". Phew, that means there's only a very small chance that beaver anal juice could be in your latte.

If you do fancy a proper taste of the good stuff, there's actually a traditional Swedish alcoholic beverage – Bäverhojt (which means beaver shout) – that is flavoured with castoreum.