High prices in natural vanilla flavoring have driven a search for alternatives. Can beaver butts provide the answer?
What makes Vanilla Vanilla?
To be honest, I never really knew what made vanilla vanilla. I had heard the term “vanilla bean”—did that mean that vanilla came from a legume? I had also heard that some vanilla flavoring came from beaver butts– but that couldn’t possibly be true! I decided to do my own research and get to the bottom of this.
I found out that the chemical compound vanillin is responsible for the giving vanilla that distinctive vanilla taste and that it comes from the pod (called the vanilla bean) of the tropical vanilla orchid Vanilla planifolia.
|Common Name:||Vanilla Orchid|
The vanilla orchid Vanilla planifolia is native to Mexico. It belongs to the Orchid family Orchidaceae , the largest family of flowering plants. The chemical vanillin is extracted from immature pods of the vanilla orchid (Elpel 2013). Other plants, such as tobacco, do contain vanillin but only in trace amounts (Walton et al. 2003). Early Mayan cultures were the first to develop a curing process and used vanilla mixed with Copalli resin aromatically in thier sacred temples. The Aztecs used vanilla to flavor their drink chocolat. Vanillin continues to be popular for a wide range of uses: as a flavoring, as an aphrodisiac, and medicinally (for treatments ranging from fever to hysteria) (Bythrow 2005). Today Mexico continues to be a big producer of vanilla along with Madagascar, Indonesia, and China.
Vanillin is a simple aromatic phenolic chemical compound that has been used as a flavoring for centuries. The bean pods have the highest concentration of vanillin but the form that we recognize does not occur until after a curing process that can take over six months (Walton et al. 2003). Vanillin has both antimicrobial and antioxidant properties (Converti et al. 2010).
The cultivation of vanillin via Vanilla planifolia is quite expensive and so the vast majority of commercial vanilla is actually synthetically created. Most synthetic vanillin is derived from the more complex chemical lignin which is obtained from wood waste (Converti et al. 2010). There is a push for finding alternative “natural” ways of production. There have even been studies to test the synthesis of vanillin by mushrooms (Lomascolo et al. 1999); can the mushroom produce my vanilla ice cream cheaper than the orchid? Then there is beaver butt. Beavers have two scent glands used for marking their territory and yes one of them smells and tastes like vanilla. This beaver-produced vanilla-like goo/secretion is called castoreum and is a mixture of different chemicals. Vanillin is not found in castoreum but the elixir of chemical compounds somehow produces a vanilla-like smell/taste (Rosell and Sculte 2004).
Although the FDA does not require castoreum vanilla flavoring to be labeled as such since it falls under the blanket term «natural», very minimal amounts of castoreum are sold yearly so it is unlikely that the natural vanilla flavoring you are eating includes castoreum (Bloudoff-Indelicato 2013). You might be disturbed by this news, however if you are so inclined, it is possible to buy both beaver perfume and dried castor sacs (that hold the castoreum inside the beaver) on Esty.
Expensive Natural Vanilla
One of the biggest factors in the high cost of vanillin from the vanilla orchid Vanilla planifolia, is the amount of labor involved in the cultivation and processing of the pods. Each bean comes from a single flower that opens for just a few hours; if the flower is not pollinated during this time it will close up and fall off the plant . All vanilla grown for commercial use is hand pollinated by people (Prince and Gunson 1994). The orchid’s natural pollinator is a small stingless honey bee Melipona (STRI 2005). The Melipona bee and the vanilla orchid co-evolved to form a highly specialized relationship.
The Melipona bee faces a combination of threats in the Yucatan including habitat loss, decline in beekeeping, and the rise of European and African bees which produce more honey. This decline in native bees is detrimental to the flora that they co-evolved with (STRI 2005). Conversation efforts in Mexico for the Melipona bee provide training and support for beekeepers– helping to preserve cultural traditions and ecological relationships. This goes to show you that it is important to take care of entire ecosystems because each organism plays a critical role in the functioning of the whole system. People probably would not be driven to taste beaver butt secretion if there were not ecological problems facing the vanilla orchid and its pollinator.
Bloudoff-Indelicato M. 2013. Beaver butts emit goo used for vanilla flavoring. Water Currents. National Geographic. [Internet]. Oct. 1.
Bythrow JD. 2005. Vanilla as a medicinal plant. Seminars in Integrative Medicine, Volume 3, Issue 4, Pages 129-131.
Converti A, Aliakbarian B, Domínguez JM, Bustos Vázquez G, Perego P. 2010. Microbial production of biovanillin. Brazilian Journal of Microbiology. 41: 519-530.
Elpel TJ. 2013. Botany in a day: the patterns method of plant identification. 6th edition. Pony, MO: Hops Press LLC. Pages 202-203.
Lomascolo A, Stentelaire C, Asther M, Lesage-Meessen L. 1999. Basidiomycetes as new biotechnological tools to generate natural aromatic flavours for the food industry. Trends Biotechnol. Jul;17 (7):282-9.
Prince RC, Gunson De. 1994. Just plain vanilla? Trends in Biochemical Sciences. Vol 19, Issue 12. Page 521.
Rosell F, Sculte BA. 2004. Sexual dimorphism in the development of scent structures for the obligate monogamous Eurasian beaver (castor fiber). Journal of Mammalogy, 85(6): 1138-1144.
STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). 2005. Mayan stingless bee keeping: going, going, gone? Science Daily.
Walton NJ, Mayer MJ, Narbad A. 2003 Vanilin. Phytochemistry. Volume 63, Issue 5. Pages 505–515.