Where does artificial vanilla flavoring come from? Perfumers explain

  • It is a myth that artificial vanilla flavoring comes from castor oil extracted from beaver sacks.
  • Flavor chemists explain that artificial vanilla flavor is made from synthetic vanillin.
  • Vanillin is usually synthesized from compounds found in clove oil, wood and bark.

From cake mixes and candies to cereal and ice cream, artificial flavors like vanilla, strawberry and raspberry can be found in a wide range of processed foods.

The FDA does not require listing all of the ingredients in these supplements, which leaves much open to interpretation and misunderstanding.

For example, in recent years, a claim began to spread wildly on the Internet that artificial vanilla flavorings – and to some extent raspberry and strawberry – are derived from beaver anal secretions.

While shocking and fodder for friendly conversation, the claims were over-dramatized and over-hyped. So where do these artificial fragrances come from?

To find out, we talked to some flavor chemists about how these artificial flavors are made—and spoiler alert: It doesn’t actually involve beaver limbs in any capacity.

Because most vanilla fragrances are artificial and not natural

A person in a laboratory conducting a test on some dark substance.

There are a limited number of flavor chemicals in the world that develop the artificial flavors in many of our favorite processed foods.

Ivan-balvan / Getty Images

Natural flavors come from edible sources found in nature, such as fruits, vegetables, spices, herbs, leaves, and roots, while artificial flavors are produced in a lab where certified flavor chemists, or “flavorists,” experiment with chemical combinations.

It is estimated that there are only about 400 certified flavorists worldwide, according to the Society of Flavor Chemists. The career involves highly specialized training for at least seven years, and the flavor combinations they study and develop are considered top secret.

Fortunately, Robert J. McGorrin, PhD, professor of flavor chemistry at Oregon State University and fellow at the American Chemical Society, was willing to talk with us. He said many food companies use artificial flavors because extracting natural flavors from fruits and other plants is labor intensive and expensive. And vanilla is no exception.

McGorrin said the supply of vanilla beans can’t even meet current demands. In addition, he noted that the price of vanilla fluctuates greatly depending on the weather and other factors that affect crops.

Not only can artificial flavors be produced faster and at a much lower cost, but they are more consistent and controllable in terms of taste. Natural flavors can vary greatly depending on the climate in which the plants were grown, how they were harvested, and other factors.

What is artificial vanilla flavor made from?

Cross section for tree.

Some synthetic vanillin is made from lignin, a natural plant tissue found in wood and bark.


Artificial vanilla is made from synthetic vanillin, according to McGorrin.

Vanillin is the compound in vanilla beans that gives them their distinctive flavor. However, less than 0.3% of the vanillin used to flavor foods actually comes naturally from vanilla beans, mainly because extracting vanilla beans is a time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive process.

Originally, vanillin was mainly produced in the laboratory from eugenol, the main component of clove oil. Today, McGorrin said the majority of commercial vanillin is made from guaiacol — a natural compound found in wood smoke and clove oil.

Guaiacol is the precursor to vanillin, meaning it can mimic its flavor because it is involved in a chemical reaction that produces vanillin.

McGorrin also noted that a smaller amount of synthetic vanillin is made from lignin, a natural substance found in wood and bark.

As for artificial strawberry and raspberry flavors, McGorrin said they are usually made from mixtures of synthetic organic compounds — all of which must be recognized as safe and approved for use in food.

“The formulas used to make synthetic flavors are closely held trade secrets,” he said. “But these flavors generally consist of esters, ketones, lactones and other compounds.”

For example, a chemical aptly named “raspberry ketone”—also found naturally in raspberries—is a key ingredient in artificial raspberry flavor.

According to Gary Reineccius, PhD, a flavor chemist and researcher and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, artificial flavors typically have the same chemical structure as their natural counterparts. This explains why these flavors often taste remarkably close to the real thing.

However, you may be able to tell the difference between artificial and natural flavor.

For example, McGorrin said real vanilla contains flavor volatiles — odor compounds that contribute to a food’s flavor — that impart a floral, woody depth and rum- and bourbon-like notes.

Scientists are still working out how to reproduce these volatile flavors, which is why artificial vanilla flavors tend to lack complexity.

No, the artificial vanilla, raspberry and strawberry flavors are not from Beaver Cookies

Image of a North American beaver.

Extraction of beaver from the beaver pouches located near the anus was more common than today.

Vladone/Getty Images

At some point, you may have come across one of the countless online articles and social media posts suggesting that artificial vanilla, raspberry and strawberry flavors come from castoreum, a chemical compound released by beavers to mark their territory.

In an article about Vice, flavor historian Nadia Berenstein wrote that during the 1960s and 1970s food manufacturers used very small amounts of castoreum to enhance artificial flavors of vanilla, strawberry, and raspberry. However, this became much less common starting in the 80s as brands tried to make more of their products kosher.

As of 2009, total U.S. castor oil consumption was only about 292 pounds per year — or about 0.00000088 pounds per person, according to the 5th edition of Fenaroli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients,

Additionally, when the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG) asked five companies about the ingredients in vanilla flavorings in 2011, all five said they did not use castoreum. Not only that, but they all claimed that castor “is not currently used in any form of vanilla sold for human consumption.”

It is important to note that castoreum does not come from the beaver’s anus – it comes from the animal’s beaver sacs. Since they are very close to their anal glands – right between the pelvis and the tail – the substance may contain anal gland secretions and urine.

Castoreum has a sweet, and sometimes musky, scent due to the beavers’ diet, which consists mainly of bark and leaves – so it has a history of use in perfumes. This also helps explain why flavor scientists are turning to natural wood and bark substances for vanilla aroma.

The US Food and Drug Administration lists castor as “generally considered safe.” It also has the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association seal of approval for use in food.

However, rest assured that the use of castoreum in artificial perfumes is extremely rare and mostly a myth. That’s because it’s very rare, McGorrin said.

“If you think about it from an economic and supply chain perspective, there is no commercial source of beaver bags,” McGorrin said.

Castoreum can only be obtained by anesthetizing a beaver and “milking” its beaver. McGorrin noted that earlier in the 20th century, there were many beaver farms to supply the fur and felt hat trade. However, as the popularity of natural fur has declined, there is no longer an industry that makes it possible to obtain castoreum.

If food companies relied on castoreum for artificial flavoring, there would likely be constant shortages of their products – which would then skyrocket.

Today, there are many more widely available as well as cost-effective alternatives to castoreum, Reineccius said.

Leave a Comment