Sweet Treats and Beaver Butt

Hey, y’all, it’s me again! Science Guy, aka Heide’s hubby Stephen, stopping by to talk about something cool related to both science and food. There’s a lot of that out there, isn’t there?

So for today’s topic, I went looking online for the coolest food fact I could find. I searched several places, ending up on the Food Network’s Canadian site and Buzzfeed. One boasted 12 food facts, and the other an awesome 60!

Made it all the way to number two (of twelve) on the Food Network site: “Artificial Vanilla Extract and Beavers.” Huh. What a title, right? So, according to the experts — um, you might not believe this, but — that sweet, if fake, vanilla liquid I’ve been adding occasionally to coffee grounds before brewing is made from a substance called castoreum. That’s not the same as castor oil, though I kind of wish it were. See, castoreum is a substance that comes from a beaver’s anal gland.

Screech! Wait, what? It seemed unbelievable, so I checked Buzzfeed. Sure enough, Number 22 of their 60 was exactly the same tidbit of rather yucky information: imitation vanilla comes from beaver butt. And hey, get this: it’s even, technically, “all natural.”

I don’t like taking things at face — or butt — value, though, so I went for some other sources. While there are dozens of sites out there that say pretty much the same thing, I was relieved to land on a page from my friends over at Snopes to learn that — well, it ain’t necessarily so. It’s an urban legend, at least mostly. Whew. I mean, nothing against Mr. Beaver, but — that’s just eww. This former Infantry officer doesn’t use that term much, I tell you. I’ve eaten bugs, and snakes, and some things that were actually required to rot before being consumable, but beaver butt? Once again: eww.

According to the folks at Snopes, while castoreum can be used for vanilla flavoring, it isn’t used that way very often. It is used pretty widely by the perfume-making industry — because, you know, what lady wouldn’t want to entice her niffy-other by smelling like beaver butt? — but not by the food industry. The reason, besides what I’d prefer to think is the obvious one, is economics. To collect castoreum requires — well, a beaver, and since they are seldom interested in playing along sweetly, the little guy has to be anesthetized. Then, while it’s out, the collector, um, manipulates certain spots in certain ways and — well, you get the picture. Or, maybe, hopefully, you don’t. Regardless, the collection of castoreum is done manually, and it’s a very expensive thing. It’s even more expensive, Snopes tells me, than the actual vanilla extract is.

So, okay, Food crisis averted, and in the process I learned how imitation vanilla extract isn’t made, and that little bit actually relieved me greatly. Unfortunately, the knowledge left me with an insatiable desire to answer more questions: specifically, how is imitation vanilla extract made, and also why is natural vanilla extract so dang expensive?

To answer them in reverse order: turns out natural vanilla is expensive because it’s really, totally, completely a pain in the tuckas to grow. See, it’s an orchid, which should say everything you need to know right there. We have a couple of prima donnas of the flower world orchids, ourselves, and to be perfectly honest I’m not sure how the little things are still alive. I mean, Heide does a phenomenal job and showers them with great heaps of love and adoration, but they’re picky, picky, picky. Vanilla planifolia, one of the varieties that grows vanilla beans, is apparently worse. It’s tropical, for one thing, and so it requires lots of natural light — just not direct light, because, you know, sun burns.  No, I mean it. That’s not a joke. The freaking plant gets sunburn. It has to have lots of warmth and humidity, too, and the soil has to be just right — not too dense, and not too loose. You have to fertilize it, but you can’t fertilize it when it’s dry because the poor roots will burn. Oh, and don’t touch it, because the sap is a skin irritant.

I’m not making this up, really. There are actually a lot of sites out there that will tell you how to grow your own vanilla orchids. I found this one particularly well-laid-out. If you like, I’d say give it a go. Just don’t expect it to be easy. Every site I read made it clear right up front how difficult an endeavor it is.

So once you manage to get the plant to grow to 20 to 30 feet, it might bloom for you. It’s important that you watch diligently for it, since the blooms on this variety are only open for a few hours to, maybe, a day. And here’s the thing: when it blooms, you have to pollinate it by hand. When it’s open. Because, you know, yummy. If you succeed in doing all of this, then the pollinated flower will grow you a bean, or maybe even two.

Once you get the beans, then there’s the extracting process, which can be expensive in and of itself. Vanilla extract is primarily bean and alcohol (it must be >35% alcohol to be an extract), but some varieties also contain corn syrup, because apparently the vanilla bean itself ain’t sweet enough for some people. But thanks to the wonders of modern machinery and sanitation and distribution and so on, all that good stuff gets bottled and then magically shows up on our supermarket shelves for OhmyGod expensive prices.

Fake vanilla? It’s much cheaper, as many of you probably already know. Now that you’ve read this far, I’m betting that you’re pleased to be able to tell everyone that no beavers were — um, manipulated — in the making of that sweet, sweet liquid, right? Still, I’m sure you’re wondering, in turn, what was manipulated.

Short answer: nothing. Nothing alive, anyway. Imitation vanilla is made from vanillin, an organic compound called a phenolic aldehyde and bearing the molecular formula C8H8O3. Chemically speaking, it’s in the same category as one of the flavoroids in wines and cognacs. According to the site I linked, it has many useful uses, including being put into an aerosol that convinces ewes to suckle orphan lambs.

Hey, vanillin is just that cool.

It’s also fairly easy to manufacture in a lab environment. Out of what? you may be wanting to ask, but I suggest that maybe you shouldn’t.

Okay, you’re probably going to ask anyway, so here’s the answer. First, I did read about one manufacturing process that ferments rice bran to make vanillin, and this method is also, technically, “all natural.” Unfortunately, it’s nearly as expensive to produce as real vanilla, and, from what I saw, can’t be produced in near enough quantity to flavor all that ice cream that’s out there. The much cheaper and more scalable way to create vanillin is — and this is where you’re not going to like it — the petrochemical method. There are a few different actual processes that work, but in a very common one manufacturers condense a petroleum/creosote derivative known as guaiacol with a naturally occurring glyoxylic acid (an organic acid kinda like acetic acid, which you probably know as the bitterness in vinegar). The result is a yellow-white powder that tastes like vanilla. Yum!

So, here’s the remaining question: why is it that imitation vanilla extract and real vanilla extract don’t taste the same? Both carry the flavor we associate with vanilla, but the fake stuff is awfully one-note, sometimes even sharply so, while the real, expensive, extract has such a more well-rounded flavor. It turns out that the answer is pretty simple. Real vanilla extract packs all of the different flavor molecules of the bean, while the fake stuff only contains vanillin. Now, vanillin is pretty good stuff, but it’s not the same as over 100 different flavoring compounds that the bean carries.

And that’s why real vanilla beats fake vanilla any day.

Don’t you just love science?

More important — aren’t you glad imitation vanilla extract isn’t actually made from beaver butt? Petrochemicals sound much more yummy, don’t they?

And with that, I’m off. Heide will be back soon with one of her fabulous recipes, I’m sure!

– TOSK

(ps: if you enjoy my writing, check out my books at http://TheOtherStephenKing.com/works.html)

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