From cake mixes and candy to cereal and ice cream, artificial flavorings like vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry can be found in a wide range of processed foods.
The FDA doesn't require listing all the ingredients in these additives, which leaves a lot open to interpretation and misunderstanding.
For example, in recent years, a claim began spreading like wildfire on the internet that artificial vanilla – and to a certain extent raspberry and strawberry – flavorings come from beavers' anal secretions.
While shocking and fodder for friendly conversation, the claims were over dramatized and over hyped. So where do these artificial flavorings come from?
To find out, we spoke with some flavor chemists about how these artificial flavors are made – and spoiler alert: It doesn't actually involve beaver butts in any capacity whatsoever.
Why most vanilla flavoring is artificial and not natural
Natural flavors come from edible sources found in nature like fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, leaves, and roots, whereas artificial flavors are produced in a lab where certified flavor chemists or "flavorists," experiment with chemical combinations.
There are only an estimated 400 or so working certified flavorists worldwide, according to the Society of Flavor Chemists. The career involves highly-specialized training for at least seven years and the flavor combinations they study and develop are considered top secret.
Luckily, Robert J. McGorrin, PhD, a professor of flavor chemistry at Oregon State University and fellow at the American Chemical Society, was willing to speak with us. He said, many food companies use artificial flavors because extracting natural flavors from fruits and other plants is labor-intensive and expensive. And vanilla is no exception.
McGorrin said the supply of vanilla beans can't even come close to meeting current demands. Additionally, he noted that the price of vanilla beans fluctuates too much depending on the weather and other factors that affect the crops.
Not only can artificial flavors be sourced faster and at a much lower cost, but they're more consistent and controllable in terms of taste. Natural flavors can vary a lot depending on the climate the plants grew in, how they were harvested, and other factors.
What artificial vanilla flavoring is made from
Artificial vanilla is made from synthetic vanillin, according to McGorrin.
Vanillin is the compound in vanilla beans that gives them their distinct flavor. However, less than 0.3 percent of vanillin used to flavor foods actually comes naturally from vanilla beans, primarily because extracting vanilla beans is a time-consuming, labor-intensive, and costly process.
Originally, vanillin was mainly lab-produced from eugenol, the main ingredient in clove oil. Today, McGorrin said the majority of commercial vanillin is synthesized from guaiacol – a natural compound found in wood smoke and clove oil.
Guaiacol is the precursor for vanillin, which means it can mimic its taste because it's involved in a chemical reaction that produces vanillin.
McGorrin also noted that a smaller amount of synthetic vanillin is made from lignin, a natural substance found in wood and bark.
As for artificial strawberry and raspberry flavors, McGorrin said they're usually made from mixtures of synthetic organic compounds – all of which must be recognized as safe and approved for use in foods.
"The formulas used to prepare synthetic flavors are closely-held trade secrets," he said. "But these flavors are generally composed of esters, ketones, lactones, and other compounds."
For example, a chemical appropriately named "raspberry ketone" – which also occurs naturally in raspberries – is an essential component of artificial raspberry flavor.
According to Gary Reineccius, PhD, a flavor chemist and researcher as well as professor emeritus at The University of Minnesota, artificial flavors typically have the same chemical structure as their naturally occurring counterparts. That explains why these flavors often taste remarkably close to the real thing.
Still, you may be able to tell the difference between an artificial and natural flavor.
For example, McGorrin said real vanilla contains flavor volatiles – odor compounds that contribute to a food's taste – which lend a depth of floral, woody, and rum- and bourbon-like notes.
Scientists are still working out how to replicate these flavor volatiles, which is why artificial vanilla flavors tend to lack complexity.
No, artificial vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry flavor don't come from beaver butts
At some point, you may have come across one of the countless online articles and social media posts suggesting artificial vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry flavors come from castoreum, a chemical compound beavers release to mark their territory.
In an article for Vice, flavor historian Nadia Berenstein wrote that during the '60s and '70s food manufacturers did use very tiny amounts of castoreum to enhance artificial vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry flavors. However, this became significantly less common starting in the '80s as brands sought to make more of their products kosher.
As of 2009, the total US consumption of castoreum was only about 292 pounds (132 kilograms) per year – or about .00000088 pounds per person, according to the 5th edition of Fenaroli's Handbook of Flavor Ingredients.
What's more, when the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) asked five companies about the ingredients in their vanilla flavorings in 2011, all five stated they don't use castoreum. Not only that, but they all claimed that castoreum is "not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use".
It's important to note that castoreum doesn't come from a beaver's anus – it comes from the animal's castor sacs. Since these are located very close to their anal glands – right between the pelvis and tail – the substance can contain anal gland secretions and urine.
Castoreum has a sweet, and sometimes musky, scent due to the beavers' diet, which consists mainly of bark and leaves – hence why there's a history of using it in perfumes. This also helps explain why flavor scientists turn to natural substances from wood and bark for vanilla flavoring.
The US Food and Drug Administration lists castoreum as "generally regarded as safe". It also has the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association's stamp of approval for use in foods.
Still, rest assured that castoreum's use in artificial flavoring is extremely rare and mostly myth. The reason being it's just too scarce, McGorrin said.
"If you think about this from an economic and supply chain perspective, there is no commercial source of beaver castor sacs," McGorrin said.
Castoreum can only be obtained by anesthetizing a beaver and "milking" its castor gland. McGorrin noted that earlier in the 20th century, an abundance of beaver farms existed to supply the fur and felt hat trades. However, as the popularity of natural fur has waned, there's no longer an industry to make acquiring castoreum feasible.
If food companies relied on castoreum for artificial flavoring, there would likely be constant shortages of their products – which would then skyrocket in price.
Nowadays, there are many more widely available as well as cost-effective alternatives to castoreum, Reineccius said.
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