Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast you’re listening to.
I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me are: Aaron… Steve…
I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that bananas are actually berries, but beavers are not.
I’m Steve and it turns out that fruity pebbles are not, as I had been led to believe, a gay rock band.
Seeing, or rather not seeing, that I am completely color blind, I thought talking about color would make the most sense. Also with the way the world has been turning my thoughts turned to hypocrisy, and that’s where this story was born.
With fake news and double talk rampant in the USA I decided to pick apart the most glaring problem facing us in the world today. What flavor is blue raspberry when real raspberries are red?
One of my favorite slushy flavors and a mainstay in most gas stops was first seen by Steve back in the olden days of 1970. Before gaining it’s new unnatural color, ice pops we’re the popular ice treat of the day, like otter pops. The popular flavors of the past we’re very similar to flavors now, cherry, watermelon, strawberry, regular normal rasberry. Which you may have noticed, not me, that they are all various colors of red. Originally cherry and strawberry were different shades of red, watermelon was a pink shade and our original raspberry was a deep red wine color. All was well in the world of frozen treats and those with color vision could reliably figure out their flavor before tasting it.
That all changed in the early 70’s when the FDA banned E123 and FD&C Red No. 2, for those of you not in the world of cheap food dyes, this was the deep red wine dye used to color raspberry pops. Also known as Amaranth, the dye could provoke severe reactions, and was deemed a possible carcinogen. The future looked bleak for our burgundy berries.
Due to new technology in food science during the time, new sources of food dye and color we’re popping up all over the market. A cheap blue coloring was sitting in the warehouses while cooks and creatives tried to figure out what would look good blue, not very many things are blue in nature and thus a bit off-putting to a public unaware of its flavor.
Well the ice pop Barron’s of the day had an idea, they had a colorless pop and a new color… After some really creative thinking from the PR and marketing department they found the Rubus leucodermis, known as the whitebark raspberry or to some savvy botanists out there, the blue raspberry.
Image on your phone now. After some careful research/asking my wife, I have come to the conclusion that those still aren’t blue, maybe a dark purple but definitely not the brilliant blue swirling at the corner store. Brilliant blue, coincidentally, is the color of the dye used, FD&C Blue No. 1. So before the age of information fact checking the color of a blue raspberry was a bit harder to check and children around the world we’re happy to have their favorite flavor back, even if it meant you looked like you had a roll in the hay with Papa Smurf.
Sugar! Delightful little granules of goodness. The only white crystal I like to sprinkle on things more is MSG.d
But is it vegan? Or even vegetarian really?
The answer for most people is “yes, of course, I’m no major general but that’s not an animal it’s a mineral!” and for the most part, they’re right. A few listeners probably said “nope, bone char” and… they are also, for the most part, right.
It’s a good bet the second group of hypothetical respondents I turned into an introductory segway are, or are at least dinner-party-our-wives-arraigned-without-telling-us-until-it-was-too-late-to-back-out friends with, a vegan or vegetarian.
I’m going to gloss right over the merits for or against eating meat so we can get to the sweet stuff: sugar!
Most sugar consumed in America and similar nations like Canada, the warm-beer conglomerate formally known as the UK, Germany, Australia… probably… some other ones, get most of their sugar from beets. These are large, white, beets by the way, not the red ones most people think of or this quote is about:
> “The beet-root, when being boiled, yields a juice similar to syrup of sugar, which is beautiful to look at on account of its vermilion color”
That’s 16th-century scientist Olivier de Serres, who discovered a process for preparing sugar syrup from the common red beet. Unfortunately, his process never caught on. It would take some significant scientific progress in Germany and America before sucrose from beets was commercially viable. Fortunately, since the 6th century BC (though I’m willing to bet longer) people have been nomming on sugar cane. Both plants will yield sucrose that can be boiled down rendering crystallized sugar, molasses—though beet molasses is just awful and typically used by breweries or as animal feed—and some byproducts.
From there it’s refining time and this is where things can get a little… beefy.
Beet sugar is…sugar. Default white table/confectionery/rock sugar. While “newer” in the industrial sense, because beets need a ¼ of the water of sugar cane, once the extraction processes became economically viable it very quickly became the default.
Even in places with naturally occurring sugar cane like Egypt.
Brown sugar, however, comes from sugar cane. Dark brown sugar has more molasses in it, light brown has less. Simple as that. That said, there are plenty of places that add molasses to white beet sugar to make cheap brown sugars. Cause… why not I guess.
To get white sugar from molassessy molassessy cane sugar, you need to refine and filter it.
This is where bone char comes in.
Bone char is exactly what it sounds like. You get yourself some bones and you burn the hell out of them, crucially, in a low oxygen environment. Of course there are massive machines to do this but if you wanted to make bone char at home for fertilizer or any other use (there’s a lot actually) put a bunch of beef or pork bones—but no spines or skulls, we don’t want Creutzfeldt-Jakcob disease—into a campfire and let’em go until all the soft organic matter is completely gone. From there, smother the fire and bones with pellets, wheat hulls, extra-coarse sawdust, anything that will deprive the area of oxygen but allow the slow continued burning of white-hot coles. The organic matter will burn away leaving a residue called Dipple’s oil. What remains solid are black, ashen bones that if they aren’t already, will fall into a silken dust with any amount of pressure. This happens at around 700C or 1,300F.
Bone char can be used the same way as activated charcoal in filters so you can filter out impurities like molasses content. It’s been used with wax to increase the lifespan of leather (added bonus: it makes a black pigment good for soldier’s leathers), used in making petroleum jelly, and even coats the ESA-NASA Solar Orbiter (heat shielding).
But back to sugar.
Bone char filters decolour sugar. Beef and pig bones are relatively cheap and in some applications the bone char filters can be cleaned and reused almost indefinitely. So they were popular for a while…
The use of pork bones caused an uproar in the American Jewish community when it became known that they used to make some char. Though none of the char remains with the sugar and sugar is therefore considered pareve by most Jewish people sugar manufacturers largely switched to entirely beef-based char.
All that said, only about 25% of sugar in American and the EU is filtered with bone char. This is largely due to cheaper, less controversy-inspiring, options like activated charcoal or ion-exchange resins, and that only cane sugars require a decoloration anyway.
So, if you want vegan sugar you can find it and it doesn’t have to be expensive, brown, GMO-free, all natural, nonsense from Whole Foods. White granulated sugar from beets is going to be vegan by default and most cane sugars are filtered without bone char. Of course, cane sugars are also just so, so proud of being cane sugars they add it to their labeling and branding, making them messy to avoid if that’s your thing.
Is there a difference? No, not really.
Most chefs consider molasses from cane superior because it’s a primary product, not made through additional steps or with cane-based additives. Beyond that the pompous-knobs on the internet seem to think beet sugar has an “earthy, oxidized aroma and burnt sugar aftertaste, whereas cane sugar is characterized by sweeter aftertastes and fruity aromas” which is impressive as after processing they’re literally, chemically, the same. I suppose an argument could be made for flavor differences in other applications like fermentation, but in those cases more of the original material makes it into the pot eh. Not a lot of folks rushing to make rum out of beet pulp…
In the end, you can buy some pretty expensive, certified vegan, sugar from Trader Joe’s Organic or Wholesome Sweeteners Fair Trade Organic Sugar… or you could just double check you got sugar from beets and not cane sugar, and you should be fine.
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Shea did a great job of explaining that some berry flavors are nonsense. What he didn’t tell you, because Shea is classy like that, is where that artificial flavor comes from.
Also, vanilla and perfume.
It’s called Castoreum and, apparently, it has a number of applications. Which is good, because previously beavers were really only good for coats and randomly placed damns.
Yes, Castoreum comes from beaver butt. It’s a thick, dark-brown secretion often described as “brown slime” that comes from the beaver’s caster glands, located under their big floppy tail. Basically, it’s from beaver taint. Unlike whale barf, called Ambergris, another key ingredient in most colognes and perfumes, the beaver juice smells great fresh from the source. From wildlife ecologist Joanne Crawford per National Geographic “People think I’m nuts,” she says of her past-time of shoving her nose right into the beaver’s… beaver, I tell them, ‘Oh, but it’s beavers; it smells really good.'” The perfume site Fragrantica describes beaver goo as “sharp spreading tar-like note that reminds one of the odor of birch tar or Russian leather” and that once diluted in alcohol you get “more pleasant, musky and fruity nuances” in your beaver discharge.
Castoreum is so favorably fragrant to humans that it’s been a popular ingredient in ice cream, chewing gum, pudding and brownies, berry candies—basically anything that could use a boost of berry or vanilla, which it apparently tastes like.
Beavers, not known for their collunary acumine, use Castoreum to mark territory, deter predators (except bakers), and generally stink up their personal space.
For their part, the FDA considers castoreum “generally recognized as safe” if consumed or applied topically. This is the same category as sugar, butter, and cabbage. So that’s nice.
Now, because I’m never one to let spillover research go to waste, panel, what do you think the Romans used beaver-juice for?
They burned lamps with the oil thinking the fumes would end pregnancies. I found a paper talking about it but couldn’t get all of it for free so I don’t know if it was effective but I’m going with… no.
So, have you eaten this stuff?
Nope, probably not. Not unless you’re like 100 years old and well-off anyway. While castoreum is still used in fragrances all over the world, it’s too hard to get—and therefore too expensive—for use in foods. Especially when fake vanilla is so easy to make.
Apparently adventurous foodies have harvested their own. A description of the process comes from Joanne Crawford, a wildlife ecologist at Southern Illinois University said that under general anesthisa “You can milk the anal galnds so you can extract the fluid. You can squirt [castoreum] out. It’s pretty gross.”
According to a few sources I found including Fernelli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients—definitely more on that in another show—the total annual national consumption of castoreum is only about 300 pounds. Compared to the nearly 20 million pounds of vanilla we consume from beans.
In 2011 the Vegetarian Resource Group reached out to give companies producing vanilla flavorings and all said they didn’t use castoreum. A major ingredients supplier told us this about some of their vanilla flavorings: “[Castoreum] is not a common raw material that is used and we don’t use it, so I can safely say that our natural vanilla flavors do not contain any animal juices. All vanilla extracts are free of it, too, wherever you go.”
So there you go. You probably haven’t eaten any beaver.
Transition to outro…
I’m Shea, and this week I learned about Karl Marx’s less famous sister who invented the starter pistol, Onya. Thank you to all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts. Aaron… and Steve…
Catch us next week, same bat time, same bat channel.
Find out more about the show, social links, and contact information at InterestingIfTrue.com.
Music for this episode was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.
The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms.
All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.
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