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Where Does Vanilla Flavoring Come From?

Jason Hughes
Published by Jason Hughes
Fact checked by Markus Oliver, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: June 24, 2022

Vanilla is an essential part of many desserts and sweet treats, and most bakers can't live without it. But have you ever wondered where vanilla flavoring comes from? And do you know the difference between natural and artificial vanilla extract? You may be surprised to learn that artificial vanilla comes from a gross source that isn't vegan!

In this article, we'll discuss:

Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about vanilla flavoring!

Where Does Vanilla Extract Come From?

Vanilla Extract comes from the seedpod of the vanilla orchid, which is native to Mexico.

The vanilla orchid is a delicate flower that must be hand-pollinated in order to produce the vanilla bean. This requires a lot of care and dedication from the harvesters who work to care for vanilla orchids. Once the vanilla bean is harvested, it can be used to create the vanilla extract.

How is Vanilla Flavor Made?

The process of making vanilla extract is quite simple. First, the vanilla bean is harvested from the vanilla orchid. Next, the bean is cured and dried in the sun. Finally, the bean is soaked in alcohol to extract the vanilla flavor.

The result is a beautiful, dark brown liquid with a rich, sweet flavor that is perfect for baking or use in perfumes.

What is the Difference Between Real and Artificial Vanilla?

There are two types of vanilla flavoring: natural and artificial. Real vanilla extract is made from the cured and dried seeds of the vanilla orchid. Artificial vanilla extract is made from a mixture of chemicals that mimic the flavor of vanilla.

So, what's the difference? Natural vanilla extract has a richer, more complex flavor than artificial vanilla extract. Artificial vanilla extract is also more likely to cause an allergic reaction in some people. There is also one huge key difference that we will discuss next.

Where Does Vanilla Flavoring Come From?

The answer to this question is a bit gross! Artificial vanilla flavoring comes from the anal glands of beavers!

That's right--beavers' butts are the source of artificial vanilla flavoring. The chemical compound that gives vanilla its unique flavor is called vanillin. Beavers secrete a goo to mark their territory called castoreum, which has many similarities to vanillin.

This vanilla-like compound results from the beaver's bark and leaves diet. When beavers eat bark and leaves, those plants' chemicals mix with the bacteria in the beaver's gut. This combination of plant and animal chemicals produces a vanillin-like flavor and smell. This starkly contrasts to most stinky and unappetizing anal gland secretions that wild animals tend to have.

Castoreum is collected from beavers that are either killed or caught in traps. The anal glands are then "milked," and the castoreum is extracted. The extract is then used to flavor food and beverages in place of natural vanilla.

While some people may be okay with eating food flavored with beaver butts, others may not be so comfortable with it. If you're looking for a vegan-friendly vanilla flavoring, check the label carefully. Many brands of artificial vanilla extract are not vegan because they contain castoreum.

FAQs

Is artificial vanilla safe to eat?

Yes, artificial vanilla made with castoreum is considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it's not vegan since it comes from an animal source. However, some people may be allergic to the chemicals used to create it. If you have a severe allergy to nuts, it's best to avoid artificial vanilla flavoring.

How can I tell the difference between natural and artificial vanilla?

The easiest way to tell the difference is by looking at the ingredients list. Real vanilla extract will only have one main ingredient: vanilla beans. Artificial vanilla extract will have a long list of ingredients and may say "artificial flavoring" instead of vanilla beans. This usually means they used castoreum.

Are beavers killed to make artificial vanilla?

No, beavers are not typically killed to make artificial vanilla. However, some beavers are caught in traps and may be killed if they cannot be released back into the wild.

Most of the time, beavers can be "milked" for their castoreum and released back into their natural habitat. However, milking a beaver is very stressful for the animal and can sometimes cause death.

How common is artificial vanilla flavoring?

Artificial vanilla flavoring is very common in the food industry. It's often used to flavor baked goods, candy, and ice cream. It's also used in some perfumes and scented products. Not all artificial vanilla comes from castoreum. However, if you can't find the exact source of the flavoring, it's best to avoid artificial vanilla altogether. 

Does vanilla extract expire?

Yes, vanilla extract does expire. The exact expiration date will depend on the brand, but most brands recommend using the extract within two years of opening. After that, the flavor will start to deteriorate due to the organic molecules breaking down.


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