The 35-year-old chef Jamie Oliver caused quite a stir with an appearance on Letterman’s The Late Show, where for Letterman, Food Revolution may have new meaning.
Oliver explained to Dave and his audience that vanilla ice cream contains a product called castoreum. “It comes from rendered beaver anal gland,” said Oliver. “It’s in cheap strawberry syrups and vanilla ice cream, and If you like that stuff, next time you put it in your mouth, just think of anal gland.”
When Letterman asked why beaver gland, Oliver replied, “More to the point, who found out that a beaver anal gland tastes good?”
According to the Journal of Chemical Ecology, and the publication Chemical Signals in Vertebrates, castoreum is the yellowish secretion of the castor sac, combined with the beaver’s urine used during scent marking of territory.
“Both male and female beavers possess a pair of castor sacs and a pair of anal glands located in two cavities under the skin between the pelvis and the base of the tail.”
In the book, Flavor Ingredients, George A. Burdock and professor Giovanni Fenaroli explain that castoreum is removed from the beaver during the skinning period, and is dried in the sun, or sometimes over burning wood.
“The fresh pouch contains a yellowish, butter-like mass with a fetid, sharp, aromatic odor. The dried pouch is dark-brown, hard and resinous. Castoreum has a warm, animal-sweet odor, becoming more pleasant on dilution.”
The use of castoreum dates back to the Romans, who believed the fumes produced by burning castoreum could induce an abortion.
Paracelsus (1493-1541), a Swiss physician who introduced treatments of particular illnesses based on his observation and experience, used castoreum in the treatment of epilepsy.
Castoreum also appeared in the Materia medica (The science or study of drugs: their preparation and properties and uses and effects) until the 18th century, and was used to treat headaches, fever, hysteria, and many other ailments.
Castoreum is now commonly used in both food and beverages, especially as vanilla and raspberry flavoring, and was approved by the FDA as a food additive, referenced as “natural flavoring” in the product’s list of ingredients.
A safety assessment report of castoreum appears in the U.S. National Library of Medicine titled “Safety assessment of castoreum extract as a food ingredient”.
Castoreum extract is a natural product prepared by direct hot-alcohol extraction of castoreum, the dried and macerated castor sac scent glands (and their secretions) from the male or female beaver.
It has been used extensively in perfumery and has been added to food as a flavor ingredient for at least 80 years. Both the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regard castoreum extract as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
Acute toxicity studies in animals indicate that castoreum extract is nontoxic by both oral and dermal routes of administration and is not irritating or phototoxic to skin. Skin sensitization has not been observed in human subject tests.
Castoreum extract possesses weak antibacterial activity. A long historical use of castoreum extract as a flavoring and fragrance ingredient has resulted in no reports of human adverse reactions.
On the basis of this information, low-level, long-term exposure to castoreum extract does not pose a health risk. The objective of this review is to evaluate the safety-in-use of castoreum extract as a food ingredient.