by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
A reader wrote to The VRG in April 2011 about a comment made by British chef, Jamie Oliver, on The Late Show with David Letterman. Mr. Oliver said that vanilla flavoring in ice cream is made with castoreum, a substance derived from beaver anal glands. The reader asked us if there was any truth to this statement.
The VRG asked five companies that manufacture both natural and artificial vanilla, vanilla extracts, concentrates, distillates, powders, and flavors. All five unanimously stated that castoreum is not used today in any form of vanilla sold for human food use.
One company, in business for ninety years, informed The VRG that they have never used castoreum in their products. “At one time,” we were told by a senior level employee at this company, “to the best of my knowledge, it was used to make fragrance and still may be.”
Companies directed us to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) which they all said they follow strictly and exclusively: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/cfrsearch.cfm?fr=169.175
To quote the CFR, Title 21, Part 169, Subpart B, Section175 (cited as 21CFR169.175) on this point:
“…[v]anilla extract is the solution in aqueous ethyl alcohol of the sapid and odorous principles extractable from vanilla beans. In vanilla extract the content of ethyl alcohol is not less than 35 percent by volume…The vanilla constituent may be extracted directly from vanilla beans or it may be added in the form of concentrated vanilla extract or concentrated vanilla flavoring or vanilla flavoring concentrated to the semisolid form called vanilla oleo-resin. Vanilla extract may contain one or more of the following optional ingredients:
(1) Glycerin. (2) Propylene glycol. (3) Sugar (including invert sugar). (4) Dextrose. (5) Corn sirup (including dried corn sirup). (VRG Note: spelling appears exactly as is from the original.)
(b)(1) The specified name of the food is ‘Vanilla extract’ or ‘Extract of vanilla’.
(2) When the vanilla extract is made in whole or in part by dilution of vanilla oleoresin, concentrated vanilla extract, or concentrated vanilla flavoring, the label shall bear the statement ‘Made from ___’ or ‘Made in part from ___’, the blank being filled in with the name or names ‘vanilla oleoresin’, ‘concentrated vanilla extract’, or ‘concentrated vanilla flavoring’, as appropriate…”
Section 177 of this subpart in the CFR Title 21 specifies requirements for vanilla flavoring:
“…[v]anilla flavoring conforms to the definition and standard of identity and is subject to any requirement for label statement of ingredients prescribed for vanilla extract by 169.175, except that its content of ethyl alcohol is less than 35 percent by volume.
(b) The specified name of the food is Vanilla flavoring.”
A major ingredients supplier that sells both natural and artificial vanilla extracts, concentrates, distillates, and flavors to many food companies told us this about some of their vanilla flavorings: “The flavor itself contains proprietary information that cannot be shared but it’s made from a combination of raw materials, such as vanillin, vanitrope, heliotropin, and maltol.” (VRG Note: All ingredients in this list are either all-vegetable or synthetic.) We were also informed by this company when The VRG asked specifically about castoreum in food ingredients: “…It’s not a common raw material that is used and we don’t use it, so I can safely say that our natural vanilla flavors do not contain any animal juices. All vanilla extracts are free of it, too, wherever you go.”
What is true is that castoreum is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and so approved for use in foods by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). (A few other animal-derived ingredients including ambergris (whale-derived) and musk (civet-derived) also have GRAS status and so may be ingredients in products intended for humans): http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=582.50
According to G.A. Burdock in a 2007 article published in the International Journal of Toxicology, “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).”
When castoreum occurs in a food, it does not have to be listed by its name. It is considered a “natural flavor” and may be so designated on a food package according to the CFR: http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=501.22
Readers who are doubtful of a particular brand listing “natural flavors” as ingredients are encouraged to call the food’s manufacturer and specifically request detail on which “natural flavor(s)” is/are present in the food.
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The contents of this blog, website and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.