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Can we just not call it food?

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Who's the genius who discovered
the connection between beavers and raspberries? 

By Bob Gaydos

Sometimes, a little bit of curiosity can ruin your appetite.

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I love raspberry-flavored, frozen Greek yogurt. I defy you to find a more soul-satisfying treat, especially with some dark chocolate shavings sprinkled on top.

Recently, having become a more conscientious food label-reader, I 
noticed a story on the Internet about ingredients that don't have to be listed, but come under the heading of "natural flavoring." Among the "natural flavoring" ingredients listed was "castoreum."

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"Hmm, something from the castor bean?" I wondered. 

Off to Google I went and soon found myself in a state of shock, disbelief and a little bit of, well, disgust.

It turns out that castoreum is a yellowish secretion from the castor sac of adult male and female beavers. The castor sac is located between the anus and genitals in beavers and, along with its urine, is used to scent mark the beaver's territory. Sweet.

While I had to admit the source made it a "natural" ingredient, I also wondered why the natural flavor of raspberries wasn't sufficient. And more to the point, I wondered who the genius was who decided that the exudate from a sac located next to a beaver's anus would be a good thing to add to yogurt to improve its flavor. What was the "Eureka!" moment? Who did the first taste test? 

It turns out castoreum has been used for years in perfumes. So I imagine it wasn't such a leap to go from putting a dab on the wrist to wondering if a shot of beaver sac juice would enhance the flavor of ice cream, candy, yogurt, iced tea and gelatin, especially, apparently, strawberry- and raspberry-flavored foods.

In case you're wondering, the Food and Drug Administration puts castoreum in the "Generally Regarded As Safe" category. Maybe so, but I am generally going to think twice before I buy raspberry yogurt again.

As it happens, the search for information on castoreum also led me to data on what I at first thought was the source of castoreum -- the castor bean. More bad news.

The castor bean (actually a seed) is regarded as the deadliest plant on the planet. It is the source, yes, of castor oil. But it is also the source of ricin, a powerful poison with no known antidote. The bean is also the source of a food additive identified usually as PGPR. I have learned that when I see a bunch of letters like that on a food label, it's wise to find out what they mean.

So, remember the added ingredient to my favorite dessert -- the chocolate shavings on top? Guess what's listed on the label of Hershey's dark chocolate bars? Yup. PGPR. Polyglycerol polyricinoleate.

  PGPR is a sticky yellowish liquid that acts as an emulsifier -- it holds the chocolate together. It is also much cheaper to produce than cocoa butter, meaning Hershey's can give you less chocolate in its chocolate, at lower cost to itself, thus making more profits. PGPR also lets the candy sit on the shelves much longer and still be considered safe to consume. Apparently, we're supposed to ignore that word ricin in the middle of the PGPR as well as the lack of cocoa in the chocolate bar. The FDA says PGPR is safe for human consumption, although lab tests on chickens showed what was described as reversible liver damage.

Finally, while still looking at the Hershey's label, the word vanillin caught my eye. Again, not necessarily what it seems to be. Yes, vanillin is an extract of the vanilla bean and is used as an additive in lots of foods. But, because of the rarity of the bean and the cost associated with producing it, much vanillin today is of the synthetic variety, coming from lignin, which is a byproduct of, ahem, wood pulp.

So there you have it, my favorite dessert: ricin and wood pulp sprinkled on top of beaver scent-marking sac juice. Some days it just doesn't pay to read the labels.

 

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Bob Gaydos is a veteran of 40-plus years in daily newspapers. He began as police reporter with The (Binghamton, N.Y.) Sun-Bulletin, eventually covering government and politics as well as serving as city editor, features editor, sports editor and (more...)
 

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