FOOD & DRINK
03/24/2016 11:19 am ET

Is Beaver Butt Really Used To Flavor Your Dessert? Here's What You Should Know.

Castoreum has been used for centuries.

You may have heard the rumor by now -- certain artificial flavorings like vanilla, raspberry and strawberry are made from the anal secretions of a beaver. (If you haven't heard that rumor, you might have just spit out your coffee. Sorry.) So we're setting out to clear up what's true and what's not.

A beaver's posterior, believe it or not, smells good. Like, really good, according to Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist who told National Geographic that she loves putting her nose down there and breathing it all in. "People think I’m nuts," she said. "I tell them, 'Oh, but it’s beavers; it smells really good.'"

Anna39 via Getty Images

Technically called castoreum, there's a substance described as "brown slime" that comes from the beaver's castor gland, which is located a short gasp away from its anal gland, right there under its big tail.

Castoreum is so favorably fragrant that we've been using it to flavor ice cream, chewing gum, pudding and brownies -- basically anything that could use a vanilla, raspberry or strawberry substitute -- for at least 80 years.

But whether or not it's actually still in that scoop of vanilla ice cream with strawberry syrup on top ... well, it's hard to know for sure.

  • What Is Castoreum?
    Beavers use castoreum, which comes from their castor gland (not their anal gland, although the glands really are to
    Peter Lilja via Getty Images
    Beavers use castoreum, which comes from their castor gland (not their anal gland, although the glands really are too close for our comfort under the tail), to communicate to each other: mark territory, deter predators, establish colonies, etc.

    When secreted, castoreum is "viscous, straw to brown in color, insoluble in water or ethanol, and has a heavy, pungent odor."
  • But Is It Safe?
    Both the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association and the Food and Drug Administration <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.g
    webmink via Getty Images
    Both the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association and the Food and Drug Administration consider castoreum "generally recognized as safe," nontoxic if it gets in your mouth or on your skin, and in fact has been used since the ancient days as medicines and perfumes.
  • Who Was The First Person To Put His Face On A Beaver's Behind?
    Because we humans have been using castoreum for so long, the name of the adventurous person&nbsp;to first put their&nbsp;nose
    John Warden via Getty Images
    Because we humans have been using castoreum for so long, the name of the adventurous person to first put their nose into a beaver's butt (or in a beaver's sticky scent mound on the forest floor) has been lost to time.

    But we know that the Romans burned castoreum in lamps because they thought the fumes caused abortions, and trappers have used it to lure animals since at least the 1850s.

    And it's been used as a flavoring ingredient in foods for at least 80 years as a replacement for vanilla and in some fruit flavorings such as strawberry and raspberry. There is even a castoreum liquor enjoyed by the Swedes that you can make for yourself here.
  • How Do Humans Use It?
    Castoreum is used primarily in fragrances these days, much like musks are used. Musk, like castoreum to beavers,&nbsp;is <a h
    CSA Images/Printstock Collection via Getty Images
    Castoreum is used primarily in fragrances these days, much like musks are used. Musk, like castoreum to beavers, is extracted from a gland near a deer's penis, and adds depth and warmth to a fragrance -- giving it a sweet, leathery molasses evocation.
  • Is It In Your Mouth Right Now?
    These days, castoreum is primarily used for fragrances, not foods. It's too expensive and cumbersome (and gross) a process to
    These days, castoreum is primarily used for fragrances, not foods. It's too expensive and cumbersome (and gross) a process to extract. A little less than 300 pounds is produced every year, which is stretched thin throughout the market.

    Because it's considered safe, the FDA doesn't require companies to specifically say they're using castoreum. They can just say "natural flavoring."

    But the chances castoreum is in your food are slim to none. Instead, manufacturers make strawberry flavor by mixing some fruit extract with compounds produced from other plants and trees, for example.
  • Where Can You Find It If You Really Want It?
    Aside from this wet beaver, you can still find castoreum online, even on Etsy, where vendors sell the castoreum sacs dried, w
    Dietmar Heinz via Getty Images
    Aside from this wet beaver, you can still find castoreum online, even on Etsy, where vendors sell the castoreum sacs dried, which can be "pulverized and used in incense" or an aphrodisiac.
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