You've taken the time to read the ingredient label on the refreshing fruit-flavored drink you're about to enjoy, and you've made a smart decision. The bottle you picked out—from the ever-more dizzying beverage options out there—has only a handful of ingredients, and they're all totally comprehensible: Water, cane sugar, natural flavors. That deliciously ice-cold drink in your hand? It's all-natural!
Yup, and so is a beaver's anus. Wait, what does a rodent's butt have to do with anything? You might be drinking it, that's what. An ingredient called castoreum—an FDA-approved additive derived from the anal glands of those cute fuzzy rodents—is found in all-kinds of "naturally flavored" foods, from ice cream to cookies and beverages. And it's all completely legal. How? Beats us, because if you've ever tried to probe (sorry, gross verb) into what "natural flavors" actually means, you'll find yourself mired in an ocean of confusing terminology and jargon. Unlike the deceptively simple-sounding "natural flavors" listed on food labels, the actual definition of that term is anything but comprehensible. The upshot: Natural flavors are often so far removed from the natural source from which they originated, and so processed or chemically enhanced—according to the Environmental Working Group—that they might as well be called "artificial."
Luckily, castoreum is easier to define. It's a sweet-smelling secretion (hence its use in flavorings) that beavers release, along with urine, to mark their territory and protect themselves. How do you protect yourself from castoreum? If the thought of it turns your stomach (even if the ingredient supposedly does no harm), you can start by avoiding products with "natural flavors" of strawberry, raspberry or vanilla, which is where castoreum is usually found.
Meanwhile, Snopes checked out the reports of castoreum in food products, and found that only about 292 pounds of it are consumed in food products in the U.S. annually. Are those 292 pounds too many for your taste? You decide.
(via Huffington Post.)
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