Castoreum: Is vanilla flavouring really vanilla?

Swedens food watchdog has confirmed a… yellowish secretion called castoreum is extracted from (beaver’s) scent-laying anal glands, and is sometimes mixed into perfumes and stuff we eat. Its an alternative to vanilla beans, vanillin, conifer tree extract and other sources of vanilla flavour, and is “generally recognised as safe” by the US authorities. The… ever-handy anti-rumour archive Snopes declared earlier this year that this is all true and not a lie, the Swedish National Food Agency has seen fit to confirm the origin of castoreum this week.

via THE TRUTH about beaver arse milk in your cakes: Theres nothing vanilla about vanilla • The Register.

This is grim. Really grim. But it becomes even more grim to think that natural flavourings or even vanilla flavourings could be derived from this grim practice. If castoreum is present in products that are supposedly vanilla flavour we should be avoiding this stuff, obviously.

Beaver eating lunch - castoreum intact
Beaver eating lunch – castoreum intact

Beavers make me think of cute animals swimming, messing with sticks and gnawing stuff. Vanilla, on the other hand, makes me think of custard and ice cream. Vegan version of these should not have been anywhere near a beaver at all, obviously. So how easy is it to ensure our vegan custard and ice cream faves are free of castoreum?

Custard without castoreum

The best way is DIY. It is, after all, easy to make vegan custard with real ingredients. However, the simplest method is to use custard powder. The most famous custard powder is  Birds. According to their website the ingredients are –

Cornflour, Salt, Colour (Annatto), Flavouring.

Great, but what is the flavouring? Could be still fine but the air of mystery is worrying. It’s good to know what flavouring is in our food. Indeed, it’s good to know what is in any potential food.

So what about another brand. Google found me White Wings gluten free custard powder. The ingredients are –

maize starch, salt, flavours (contains milk), colours (102, 110)

So not even close to vegan. Poor effort as far as vegans are concerned. And those horrible colours are anything but encouraging. Yuk! It’s amazing that these companies produce stuff that satisfies on one level – not gluten. Yet fails so badly on another – unhealthy colours. Poor, poor effort.

But all is not lost as Alpro make custard and it’s guaranteed to be vegan friendly. Indeed, the ingredients are –

Water, Sugar, Hulled Soya Beans (6%), Modified Tapioca Starch, Tri-Calcium Phosphate, Flavouring (Vanilla), Thickener (Carrageenan), Sea Salt, Curcuma Extract, Vitamins (Riboflavin, B12, D2).

Now that’s a lot better, no ambiguity. But with a closer look, what is that vanilla flavouring all about? They do say the product is suitable for vegans though. So what to believe? Is there really a chance that castoreum is in my custard? If only they had the Vegan Society approved mark. Then we could be heartily reassured.

However, Alpro custard is listed on A great start. But could they be unaware of the castoreum threat? Well it’s not clear in the ingredients, so we cannot be certain.

So the jury is out on the more instant form of custard. Best go down the DIY route then.

Swedish Glace and vanilla flavouring, surely not…

Surely Swedish Glace is fully vegan friendly and totally free of such grimness. You would think so and I certainly have for yonks. The company describe it as

This classic and versatile variety with its smooth texture is produced using real madagascan vanilla pods. It is the perfect accompaniment to a whole host of fruits and puddings or great just on its own.

Volume/Weight: 750ml /400g

Ingredients: Water extract from premium graded soya beans (Soya milk), sucrose, dextrose, vegetable oils non-hydrogenated, vanilla flavour, emulsifiers: mono- and diglycerides from vegetable oils, stabilisers: carob bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan, acidity regulator: calcium citrate, salt, vanilla, grains, colour: beta carotene.

from the Swedish Glace website

Beaver swimming with castoreum not an issue
Beaver swimming with castoreum not an issue

So this is confusing. There is real vanilla in Swedish Glace, from Madagascar but also vanilla flavouring. The trouble with flavouring is the ambiguity. What is it? And if it is castoreum I’ve been consuming the stuff on and off for ages. This is the kind of thing that can really annoy vegans.

And, of course, it’s a perfectly reasonable question to aks – what’s in this, please? So what is in the vanilla flavouring? Well I emailed them via their contact form on their site and got no response at all. So no nearer to answering the castoreum question.

Ice cream is a far bigger DIY issue. I have had limited success with my own efforts.

Can the Vegan Society help with this vanilla flavouring/castoreum issue?

Well as early as 1962 the Vegan Society were complaining about castoreum. The have a great feature on the site where you can go through previous editions of the magazine such as this one from 1962.

Interesting, but that doesn’t help with the ice cream or custard issue! Watch this space…

Castoreum as a flavouring

Tom Howell of the Suitable for Vegans group on Facebook pointed out that it can also be used in strawberry and raspberry flavouring. Eww! Apparently, castoreum

is often referenced simply as a “natural flavoring” in products’ lists of ingredients. While it is mainly used in both foods and beverages as part of a substitute vanilla flavour, it is less commonly used as a part of a raspberry or strawberry flavoring. The annual industry consumption is very low, around 300 pounds, whereas vanillin is over 2.6 million pounds annually.

It seems that there is far less of this stuff used than you might think. Phew. Certainly in comparison to other flavourings.

What do beaver perineal glands look like?

Is castoreum in our vegan faves?

In an attempt to find out, I’ve emailed Swedish Glace and Alpro and along with Tom have asked on Facebook pages. Tom asked a few more pages and I will report the findings below.

  1. Oatly – International: Hi Tom, No our vanilla flavouring is totally vegetable and the flavor comes from synthetically produced vanillin.
  2. Alpro: Hi Jon, thanks for getting in touch. We’re pleased to say that none of our products contain castoreum. We hope this helps.

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