Where does vanilla flavour come from? Viral TikTok about its origins will blow your mind
10 November 2020, 15:20
Here's where imitation 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!"
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.