There are now many ways to create a vanilla extract replacement. This post. however, is going to talk about one of the more disturbing.
To begin with, the amount of vanilla flavoring used in foods today far outstrips the amount of actual vanilla beans that can be grown, so an alternative to vanilla beans had to be found.
Dating back to the 1900s people had begun work on creating a substitute. One of the earliest substitutes was found in 1874 by the German scientists Ferdinand Tiemann and Wilhelm Haarmann, who were able to determine vanilla’s chemical structure and found that they could synthesize a substitute for vanilla from a substance found in pine bark.
Today we still use wood pulp to synthesize vanilla substitutes. However, there are other methods of getting that vanilla flavor.
Castoreum, which as you read on will be thankful is rarely found in food today, comes from the beaver. You see, beavers have special glands called a castor sacs. These glands are used to produce a scent in order to mark their territory.
Okay so far? Well, these sacks are located in close proximity to the beaver’s anal glands. In fact, if you lift a beaver’s tail up and smell its butt, you actually will not get the putrid feces smell you would think. Due to the beaver’s unique diet, you will instead be inhaling the sweet smell of vanilla (people actually do this).
Continuing to today, beavers are actually sedated, and these glands are “milked” for their fragrant brown slime, that is about the consistency of molasses. Unlike in days gone by though, castoreum isn’t used much for flavoring food (less than 300 lb of it end up in the food supply worldwide). Mostly now it is used in the perfume industry.
In the 18th century, though, it was both used to flavor food, “cure” headaches, fevers, hysteria, used as an analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic. Before that, the Romans believed the fumes produced by burning castoreum could induce an abortion and Paracelsus thought it could be used in the treatment of epilepsy. And even as late as 1911, the British Pharmaceutical Codex listed castoreum for use in dysmenorrhea and hysterical conditions, raising blood pressure and increasing cardiac output.
Some of these things may actually have been helped by castoreum, as the accumulation of salicin from willow trees, a natural food in the beaver’s diet, which is transformed to salicylic acid, has an effect very similar to aspirin.
Fortunately today we have aspirin and wood pulp and don’t have to go looking for a beaver’s rear end to find a cure for a headache or that one flavor which adds so much to so many foods.