The Hidden Industrial Food System: Why Beaver Glands and Human Hair May Be a “Natural” Part of Your Food

by Cole Mellino

Industrial agriculture is a major part of the global ponzi scheme. By continuing to fool ourselves into thinking we can infinitely produce more fossil-fuel laden food with limited resources, we’re setting ourselves up for a major catastrophe.

And that fooling happens on every level. Take the disturbing ways in which we create flavors for foods.

The “all natural” label applied to food means absolutely nothing by federal standards. And yet, food companies prey on growing consumer demand for wholesome healthy food by slapping the label on anything they can. The Food and Drug Administration, which is charged with protecting and promoting our health through regulation and oversight of the food industry, has not developed a definition for the “all natural” label. However, “the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances,” according to the FDA’s website.

People have a false perception that our food industry is well regulated, when it simply is not. To shed some light on what is in our food and what concoctions can even be labeled as “all natural,” Bruce Bradley, a former food marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco, keeps a blog about the food industry. In 2008, he left the corporate world and decided to devote the rest of his life to promoting healthy food and criticizing the Big Food industry.

Because our food has become so highly processed and because by FDA law, food companies can list spices and flavorings as natural or artificial flavors, unbelievably strange and disgusting things are being added to our food:

  • Beaver anal glands, known as castoreum (I guess anal glands was a hard sell), are typically used in vanilla and raspberry flavoring and can legally be labeled natural flavoring
  • L-cysteine or cystine is used a dough conditioner. It’s sometimes made from human hair, but more and more from duck feathers and can be found in breads and baked goods.
  • A red food coloring additive that goes by many names (Carmine, Crimson Lake, Cochineal, or Natural Red #4) is made from insects like the cochineal beetle.

This is just one more example of how distorted our food system is. To see a longer list of the strange food additives that can be grouped under “natural flavors,” go to Bruce Bradley’s blog.

— Cole Mellino is an intern with the energy team at the Center for American Progress

19 Responses to The Hidden Industrial Food System: Why Beaver Glands and Human Hair May Be a “Natural” Part of Your Food

  1. Hank says:

    What in the world is “fossil-fuel laden food”?

  2. John McCormick says:

    Stephen, I do enjoy your always interesting topics, even if I found this a bit nauseating.

    Forgive this OT but I thought readers might want to see a satellite image of the massive storm that slammed into western Alaska:

  3. ed says:

    This doesn’t seem to me to big problem, if the substances are tested to determine effects are not toxic. Many people eat bugs for food. Intestines were used for sausage casings.

  4. joyce says:

    I agree. Especially with the eating insects part. What a shame to miss out on the proteins available in insects. Our cultural bias may end up preventing us from a food source that should be explored. (Wasn’t it the ancient Norwegian colony in Greenland that starved because they thought eating fish was not an option?)

  5. Robert says:

    For whatever it’s worth carmine has been made out of the cochineal beetle in the New World and by kermes vermilio in the Old World for thousands of years.

  6. Question says:

    I also don’t understand the problem with the listed examples. Most of these are centuries old and only sound “gross” because we are so ignorant about our food these days. Rennet used in cheese production is essentially ground up stomach lining. Sounds gross, but its use is thousands of years old.

    Besides, castoreum is not from the anal glands, it is from the castor sacs which happen to be near the anal glands. If you want to talk about anal glands then you should be listing Civet Coffee!

  7. W Scott Lincoln says:

    I seem to recall reading that most major orange juice variations use artificial scents and flavorings because the vaccuum storage process removes most flavor from juice. But the FDA, nor law, requires them to list those in the ingredients, so they can say it is all “100% natural, not from concentrate, blah blah blah healthy blah”

  8. Chris Lock says:

    If you’re worried about what goes into your food, eat unprocessed food. Eat from the periphery of the grocery store, and avoid the aisles.

    I’m a follower of Michael Pollan and his philosophy toward food.

  9. Joan Savage says:

    oh well – I left a largely rhetorical question about the energy costs of these conversion food products, but it may have been bounced because of a link included to a commercial fur site. The commercial site revealed that the beaver’s castor sells at three to four times the price of the animal’s pelt.
    It does seem to me that neither the processing of feathers nor castor is likely to take place without some fossil fuel or chemical component.

  10. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    The beaver anal glands meme has been making its rounds and whenever it pops up on science-based websites it (and related “icky” food posts) are soundly refuted. I’m a bit surprised to see it pop up here. It is the equivalent of “global warming stopped in 1998/2002 etc.”. \

    Or perhaps a better analogy might come from the antivax crowd where they list the ingredients of vaccines and proclaim how dangerous those ingredients are regardless of the amount or the compound (e.g. NaCl—sodium and chlorine…both shown to be deadly).

  11. Jason Miller says:

    I have heard Native Americans used ALL of a buffalo, not just the meat. They didn’t waste any part it. Hogshead cheese, Mountain Oysters, brains, kidneys and pate are examples of foods I don’t like to eat. Castoreum, as a flavor, doesn’t bother me.

    Who hasn’t accidentally swallowed a bug? But pate de fois gras is just plain cruel.

  12. EDpeak says:


    It’s all well and good for some commenters to clarify or even correct (if there are indeed mistakes as they suggest) in the post..

    It’s all well and good if THEY don’t mind eating such things.

    The fact that the public is kept in the dark as to the true ingredients so the manufacturer can hide behind the curtain of vague language like “natural flavoring” is NOT ok.

    Whether they are trying to “protect our trade secret” from competitors or just “don’t want to scare customers away by telling them the actual ingredient” is no excuse.

    The very least in a 21st century supposed democracy that we should be able to expect is the right to know if it’s from what bug, what part of what bug, what part of what gland on a duck, or what have you, if they want to be allowed to sell it. It’s not even restricting their right to sell it. Only their “right” to sell it while keeping the ingredients secret from the public which would be eating it..unacceptable.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Well, seeing as how modern agribusiness requires vast amounts of fossil fuels to run machinery, produce artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, then even more to transport these inputs, then even more to transport the product over great distances (even between continents)I’d call that highly fossil-fuel dependent. Only localised, organic, agriculture, with less processed food, less waste and less meat has any chance of sustainably feeding humanity. As such a system would threat the market capitalist priority of profit maximisation, and the Western geo-strategic imperative of seizing control of the global food-chain in order to gain an even greater grip over the poor world, it’s unlikely to happen. The alternative is that Malthusian final solution to ‘over-population’ that the global elites have long planned.

  14. Doug Bostrom says:

    I have to mark myself down in the “culturally challenged” as opposed to “justifiably disgusted” column.

    One thing about beaver glands that concerns me is the relatively scanty supply of those animals. We deprecated turning them into hats in part because it was repugnant to us to wipe out the species for such a trivial reason; adding beaver extract to ice cream does not seem more justifiable than repurposing them as fashion accessories.

  15. Tom Lenz says:

    It’s true, we didn’t waste any parts of the buffalo. Then Homo Economus arrived with his ‘free market’. It only took about five years to practically exterminate them. That’s the American way.

  16. Daniel J. Andrews says:

    You make a good point, Doug. While I wouldn’t say beavers are scarce (around here you can’t go anywhere without tripping over one…or having one trip over you if you stay still), the fact that we kill them for their fur (and sometimes for dog food, and their glands) doesn’t sit well with many.

    If people could see how these animals struggle for such a long time before they drown then that wouldn’t sit well with many more people.

    It’s all well and good for some commenters to clarify or even correct (if there are indeed mistakes as they suggest) in the post..

    Google is your friend. Try that before implying people are lying.

    It’s all well and good if THEY don’t mind eating such things.

    Again, Google is your friend. The public does have a right to know what is in their food, but I’m not sure how it is the food industry’s fault that people can’t look things up and need to be spoonfed (heh) information. Do be prepared though to discover almost everything you eat may have an ‘ick’ factor, depending on your tolerance or ‘taste’ (heh again). E.g. look up agar (or not).

    Just because something is derived from something you might find icky, doesn’t mean you’re eating the icky thing itself (or wearing it in lipstick, perfumes, deodorants, or ingesting in over-the-counter medications).

    I have heard Native Americans used ALL of a buffalo, not just the meat. They didn’t waste any part it.

    There’s more than a little myth-making behind that. In places buffalo were herded off the cliffs in large numbers, and then just the choice bits were taken (like the tongue….which is what Europeans were accused of doing–and did–when they went on a shooting spree). Piles of bones are testament to the wanton waste long before Europeans showed up.

    Similarly, other groups would set whole forests on fire, kill all the wildlife coming out, let the rest burn, and then later farm the burned land (if it was farmable).

    In the far north of Canada, there’s vast numbers of caribou killed at stream crossing points with many of the bodies being left in the stream by hunters.

    I talked to a hunter last year who was complaining that he wasn’t having any luck finding moose on his lake this year, and without a trace of irony or awareness said, “There should be lots. We took out 23 in the past two years”.

    Like all humans in general, the First Nations will wastefully exploit a resource when it seems to be in abundance.

  17. Tom Lenz says:

    It wasn’t wanton waste when they were killing their prey just to survive the only way they knew how. You have obviously never gone hungry a day in your life.

  18. Crank says:

    Intestines were used for sausage casings.

    What do you mean, “were used”? The best sausages still use them. You can get them at Amazon for making your own:

    I have some in my freezer…

    I also don’t see anything wrong with any of these ingredients; they’re mostly very traditional and have nothing to do with “industrial” food production. Cochineal beetles I already knew about. They’re definitely not something you could call a recent innovation by any stretch.

  19. ZedDee says:

    So toughen up people !
    Do you think the chicken in your salad roll is 100% chicken breast ?
    More likely it’s pressed chicken meat – Google that and see what it’s made of…
    If people knew what went into their favourite foods they’d be sick.
    If you want to be sure of what’s in your food then grow your own food !
    Don’t expect “modern” food processing to do you any favours as far as quality ingredients goes.