“Do you know what’s in that?” a friend of mine asked as I approached our table with a strawberry shake in hand.
We’ve all heard this line from informed consumers, and we often hear it when we have a delectable morsel dangling before our mouth. The ones who speak this condemnation are informed consumers who prefer an order of yoke free eggs and tofu, with a side of humus, yet we can only guess that their repetitive condemnations are fueled by some sort of confusing variation of envy directed at the delectable morsel we have dangling before our mouth.
We know where our conversation with these people are heading. We know most busybodies have no problem intruding into our lives to inform us that our dogs shouldn’t chase ducks in city parks, that our hygienic standards are subpar, that we watch too much TV. We know we can’t just run away when they take their place behind the proverbial pulpit. We put up with it, all of it, because the alternative means conceding to the idea that there’s too much knowledge out there.
The premise of this idea of too much knowledge makes us wince. How can there be too much knowledge? If we thought this contention was limited to the idea that too many people know too much about too many people, and that too many people focus too much energy on trivial matters, we might be able to get behind that. Even when an informed consumer decides that it’s perfectly acceptable to share his knowledge about the ingredients of the food we’re about to eat, we might still wince at the alternative. We can only hope it will amount to little more than a casual, humorous observation, akin to a sitcom joke. We might consider the idea of placing some kind of Orwellian governor on such information available on the net, but we won’t concede to the idea that there’s too much knowledge available to the concerned. Knowing that an institutional governor of some sort, on information outlays, violates our personal constitution, we might want to suggest that informed consumers at least place a personal cap on the type of information they share with us, insofar as we might deem what they “simply have to hear about” irrelevant. We think the onus should be on the speaker to note when their audience reaches the point of visible agitation. We might want to ask a poignant, roundabout question regarding how few people recognize when they’re violating another’s personal space, to a point when they don’t mind intruding upon another’s enjoyment of a meal with trivial information that is often vulnerable to contradictory studies.
“Let’s put it this way,” my friend said. “What would you say if I asked you to tell me the difference between the strawberry flavoring in your shake and a beaver’s anal secretion?”
I did everything but close my eyes in this space. Being within earshot of such an individual exhausts me. They’re indefatigable. They know so much about so many trivial things that I wonder if they’ve ever spent any time studying the fine art of discretion. They display no ability to read their audience or an awareness of when to stop. It’s almost as if they have so much trivial knowledge stored in their cerebral tanks that if they don’t hit the release valve every once in a while, they may implode. Experience dictates that if we let them have their say, it will all be over soon, but we cannot precipitate this closure by saying, “I don’t want to be part of this information dump.”
“I’d say I can tell the difference,” I said without yawning.
“You’d think that wouldn’t you,” said my friend, an informed consumer, “but people confuse the two every day. Those who enjoy eating strawberry, raspberry, and vanilla ice cream are, in essence, big fans of a beaver’s anal secretion. If they’re willing to pay a little more for products that use ‘natural flavorings,’ they’re probably eating a number of secretions from animals, insects, and a wide array of repulsive animal byproducts. The natural assumption is that the opposite of natural flavorings involves manmade, chemical enhancement, but does the average consumer know the true extent of the ‘natural flavorings’ in the products they purchase? Chances are that anyone who prefers natural flavoring in their strawberry shakes has actually been devouring the yellowish secretion from the dried perineal glands of the beaver, in a most gratuitous manner, for years.”
The Castoreum Connection
Castoreum is the exudate from the castor sacs of the mature North American Beaver. Consumers have stated that they prefer this natural flavoring augment to other natural flavorings in blind, taste tests of course. The internet offers no details regarding whether this market-tested preference is due to the scent of the secretion, or if the flavor has been determined to be more delicious than any of the other alternatives flavorists have tried over the years. Whatever the case is, the beaver doesn’t produce this exudate from its castor sacs to tweak our senses. Rather, they release this natural produce as a territory marker. The procedure involved in extracting the exudate is such that the beaver doesn’t have to give up his life to provide this flavoring. Rather, enterprising young hands milk it from the castor sacs located in the beaver’s anal glands. Those curious enough to pursue more knowledge on this subject, to the point of probably having too much, should know that entering the search term “milking the beaver” in a search engine may not pull up the instructional videos they seek.
It’s important to note that research scientists in this field, called flavorists, have developed synthetic substitutes for castoreum and almost all of the natural additives listed herein. Yet, informed consumers tell us that synthetic substitutes fall under the artificial flavorings umbrella, and artificial flavorings fall under the manmade umbrella, and that we should all consider these two terms unacceptable. When informed consumers read the words “synthetic substitute,” “chemical additive,” or “artificial flavorings,” they may make the leap to animal testing or to the unintended consequences of man messing with nature, because some anecdotal bits of information stick in our minds regarding chemical synthetics leading to cancer and other health concerns. As a result, we prefer natural flavorings.
Natural and Artificial Flavoring
So, what is the difference between artificial and natural flavorings? Gary Reineccus, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota, writes that finding the difference between the two requires one to look at the original source of the chemicals used.
“Natural flavorings just mean that before the source went through many chemical processes, that it came from an organic, natural source as opposed to an artificial one that has no natural origin.”
“I used to be a vegetarian,” a friend of mine told me. “I grew up on a farm, and I saw what they did to the chickens and the ducks to prepare them for our meals. I decided that I would no longer eat them. I felt bad for them. When I was a little girl, I had no idea I was eating the chickens from the pen. I never associated the chickens from the pen with the chicken I enjoyed eating. The question of why they had the same name just never occurred to me. When they explained it all to me, and I saw how they prepared my friends, the ducks and chickens, for my consumption, I didn’t eat chickens or any other meat for years.”
How much does the average consumer enjoy M&M’s and jelly beans? Would their enjoyment of these products lessen if the tender, chewable morsels were less shiny? The flavorists at these companies either experienced initial failure with the dull glow of their candy, or they decided not to risk it, and they relied on an additive called shellac. That’s right, in order to give our favorite tasty morsels a little extra shine, they coat them with same stuff others put on our wooden furniture to give it that extra shimmer. What’s the problem with that, though, if it passes the rigorous standards of our Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
“Nothing,” writes Daisy Luther, for the Organic Prepper, as long as consumers know the shellac “is a resinous secretion from bugs during their mating cycles, the female lac beetle in particular. Glazed donuts and glossy candy shells owe their shininess to these secretions.”
Starbucks once had a difficult time keeping their strawberry Frappuccino a visually appealing vibrant red. The struggle for Starbucks was that most of the red flavorings they tested couldn’t offer that delightful hue, so they turned to Natural Red #4 dye, otherwise known as carmine. This proved more successful in holding the color, but informed consumers discovered that it is actually a cochineal extract, a color additive derived from the cochina beetle’s shell. The process involves drying the insects and grinding them up to give their strawberry Frappuccino a more sustainable red flavoring. Informed consumers forced Starbucks to end the practice and caterwauled them into transitioning to lycopene, a pigment found in tomatoes.
As usual, all this caterwauling is much ado about nothing, as studies performed over the last sixty years by independent researchers and the FDA’s research arm conclude that while most of these additives land high on our yuck list, there are no discernible health concerns or anything life threatening about them. Our culture once had a joke that we applied to such matters, “If you want to enjoy sausage, do not watch how it is made.” Those days are gone, long gone, and in its place are these, “Do you know what you’re consuming?” questions that informed consumers end up saying so loudly that corporations hear them and adapt.
Fish Bladders and Bitter Beer Face
Many such studies take an anti-corporate stance in their findings. Some are subtle, while others are overt in their call for greater corporate social responsibility. They suggest that food producers and manufacturers are engaging in deceptive business practices because they do not list “beaver anus juice” in their ingredients, and the FDA should force them to be more transparent.
To this charge, I submit that most of these ingredients have been market tested and FDA approved, and they will bring consumers no harm. I also submit that in most areas of the food and beverage industry, profits are a lot slimmer than infotainment purveyors would have consumers believe. Those who prefer clear beer, for instance, may find it at least slightly inhumane to use the dried swim bladders of beluga sturgeon (Isinglass) to filter sediment, but the alternative is yeast-filled beer that no consumer, informed or otherwise, would purchase. The food and beverage industry is such a competitive industry that the need to keep costs down and pass those savings on to the consumers is often the difference between being able to deliver said products and folding up shop. If an informed consumer demands more corporate responsibility, along industry lines, they should be prepared to pay more for these alternatives, because those higher costs will be passed on to consumers. Informed consumers are also fickle beings who force corporations into changing from natural flavorings to synthetic and back, nearly undermining their efforts with constant barrages from the outrage of the day vault. Those of us who pay attention to such matters, long for a pushback from corporations and consumers. We long for the day when uninformed consumers will step up, en masse, and say something such as:
“I don’t enjoy hearing that dried fish bladder spends time in my beer. I might prefer that they find some other way to clean my favorite beer, but I’ve been drinking it and those fish bladder remnants for decades. I eat fish all the time though, and I see nothing wrong with it, and I think the idea of bullying corporations to do things another way has reached a tipping point.”
To Get Us in the Mood
Various corporations also use products like beaver castoreum to cure headaches, fever, and hysteria, as it contains large amounts of salicylic acid, an active ingredient in aspirin. These anal secretions contain around twenty-four different molecules, many of which act as natural pheromones that help us get in the mood.
Castoreum gives off a musky scent used in perfumes, much like ambergris, the solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull gray or blackish color, produced in the gastrointestinal tract of sperm whales. The whale does not have to die for ambergris extraction either. Ambergris is a bile duct secretion produced to ease the passage of hard, sharp objects the whale ingests in the sea. As such, enterprising souls often locate the ambergris floating on the surface of the ocean in whale vomit, which makes it easier to harvest and include in our favorite perfumes and colognes.
Giacomo Casanova, well-known raconteur, often sprinkled a dash of ambergris in his evening hot chocolate, in the hopes that when his lover approached its musky aroma would be permeating from his skin. If Casanova were feeling particularly insecure while in the company of a promising damsel, he added an extra coat of it on his collar.
The theory is that our sense of smell serves a dual purpose: warning us of danger and attracting a prospective mate. Market research has expounded on these findings. They have that animal materials such as civet, castoreum and musk (from cats, beaver, and deer, all located in the same region) offer a sensual fragrance, because they harbor chemical structures similar to our own sexual odors. Musk has almost identical properties to human testosterone, in other words, an enzyme that powers our sex drive.
Who Discovered It First?
The last questions that arise in discussion involving natural substitutes and additives involve their origin: “Who first discovered this, and how did they arrive at the conclusion that it could be used in the manner we now use it?
Did someone notice that an inordinate number of women had an inordinate attraction to whalers? Did this first observer set about to try to discover why? Did whalers, after a number of successful conquests of women, realize that there was something to their success rate? Did some notice that the correlation went beyond the rugged individualism women of the era seemed to associate with whaling? Did one whaler rub some whale vomit behind his ears before he went to the tavern one night and encounter so much success that his fellow whalers followed suit? How long did it take before someone officially unlocked the alluring properties of ambergris? On that note, who was the first person to mix beaver anal juice in ice cream and decide it was such a winning proposition that they should pitch it to corporations? What did this enterprising soul say in that pitch to make it persuasive? While we’re on this topic, how did someone discover the psychedelic and psychoactive properties of the toad?
What was the trial-and-error process that led to this discovery? Did someone eat a toad and find themselves feeling a little loopy in the aftermath? Did they discover these toad venom properties by accident, or did this enterprising individual walk around licking everything in the forest, from the trees to the orifices of the aardvark and the antelope, seeking a natural high that they hoped would lead to fame and fortune?
We can make an educated guess that any individual who persisted in this manner probably didn’t care about money as much as they did about achieving a state of mind in which they could no longer care about money.
We know the natural properties in plants and animals can provide homeopathic remedies, and these theories date back to the Native Americans, to Aristotle, and beyond. We also know that there was a great deal of trial-and-error in that research, much of it accomplished in environments that were not sterile, and they produced results were not consistent and would have a difficult time standing up to the kind of peer review such a finding would experience today. With that in mind, another question naturally arises: “How many people became ill during these trials? How many experienced short and long-term paralytic effects? How many died before they found that the 5-methoxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine (5-MeO-DMT), is a chemical derivative of bufotenine located in toads? This chemical, after all, is not available in all toads. It appears to be the exclusive property of the bufo alvarius. We can only guess that many people had to lick a wide variety of toads before they discovered the one that secretes the perfect venom for those who wish to experience the euphoric results of brain cell death.
The chemical (5-MeO-DMT) is a natural venom these toads produce to defend against attackers, and recent research indicates that the toad-licking phenomenon is dangerous, and an old wives’ tale. That research reports that human beings, whom the toad views as attackers, are susceptible to consequences similar to any attacker that runs up to lick it. The human attacker may become ill and/or paralyzed in an attempt to milk the toad in a squeezing motion or to ingest it in an oral manner. This leads to the next question, which alleged educated researcher watched their fellow researchers or test subjects fall to the ground in paralytic spasms, or to their death, and crossed out the words lick it. The researcher or the one next in line must have tried everything before they found the successful method of drying the toad and smoking it. Word then leaked that someone found the Holy Grail of brain cell-killing euphoria, and the proper use of the secretions of the Bufo alvarius soon became so ubiquitous and eventually so detrimental that Queensland, Australia, deemed toad slime as contraband, an illegal substance, the possession of which is punishable under their Drug Misuse act?
My Advice to Informed Consumers
If the reader is anything like my informed consumer friend who insisted on informing me about the natural byproducts of my strawberry shake, and the reader is interested in trivial information about consumable products, that reader already knows about the number of websites that will feed that hunger. These websites provide tidbits and warnings about just about every product and service available to mankind, updated on a daily basis. If the informed consumer is so interested in such information that they feel an overwhelming need to share, just know that an ever-increasing segment of the population has already reached that tipping point, because most of this information proves to be little more than a conglomeration of trivial concerns, if not contradictory.
My initial fear, in publishing this particular article, was that it might contribute to what I deem a violation of social protocol, yet I offer it here under the banner “There’s no such thing as too much knowledge.” I am aware, however, that there will always be some informed consumers, like my broiled to black on too much information friend, who don’t believe that sharing such information will do any harm. I also know that the moment of sharing will arrive soon after the unsuspecting sits down to enjoy those products the informed consumer is now afraid to consume based on what they know about said product. To these people, I offer my paraphrase of one of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes: “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear uninformed than to open it and remove all doubt.”
Therefore, the next time someone approaches your table with a strawberry shake, a bottle of beer, M&M’s, or a fried Bufo alvarius toad they plan to consume, let them do it in peace. This might provide the informed consumer the biological equivalents of letting a kidney stone calcify in their system. If they were to ask for advice, however, I would tell them to use discretion. I would tell them an ever-increasing segment of the population doesn’t care one-eighth as much about this information as most informed consumers do, and the discretion the informed consumer shows in allowing the consumption to continue without comment could go a long way in their quest to win friends and influence people.