Tonka Beans Illegal Delicacy

Tonka beans are black and wrinkled beans with smooth brownish color inside and unique flavor. They are natives of flowering trees in Central and South America. They also thrive in Africa and Europe and can grow as high as 100 feet with smooth greyish bark covering red wood. The trees has red flowers that turn into yellow fruits that contain black seeds known as tonka beans.

tonka beans

image credit: wikipedia

Well, there is a good chance that your cupboard has some products with coumarin in them. The real cinnamon (familiar?) comes from the bark of Cinnamomum zeylanicium from Sri Lanka. It contains very low coumarin levels and was proven to contain medicinal traits but there is a possibility that it is not the true cinnamon that we have. It may be a cinnamon from the bark of a cassia tree in Southeast Asia.

Tonka beans for human consumption have been prohibited and illegal in U.S. since 1954 although it was considered that the country is the largest importer of tonka beans in the world. Studies showed that tonka beans have high levels of coumarin, a chemical that provides flavor that are also found in other plants including cherries and lavender.

These “fragrant” seeds, particularly its coumarin, is allowed as ingredients to cosmetics and tobacco. Take note that it is easily absorbed through skin and delicate linings of lungs. Coumarin is widely used in deodorants, shower gels, detergents, e-cigarettes, and scents such as Chanel Coco. Generally, tonka beans are shredded using a microplane and blend with liquids or mix with dry substances. Since these beans have powerful scent, you will need just very small amount to get the taste fused into something.


tonka bean oil

image: herbs & arts

Tonka beans has about 46% of oil by dry weight. Oil extracted from these beans are amber colored oil, dense and solid at room temperature. Tonka oil can be heated by running the oil container with hot tap water, or by using a hair dryer.

There are several types of oils that are made from tonka beans such as tincture, concrete, and absolute oils. Tonka bean absolute oil is made by soaking the beans in rum for about one to two days. Then beans are dried to allow coumarin, tiny white crystals, to accumulate on the surface. These crystals are what provide tonka beans their powerful scent.

Tonka bean oil may be used as fixative oil because of its powdery scent similar to caramel vanilla. This pleasing  and fruity aroma makes it beneficial as essential oil in perfumery industry. Generally, the oil is applied as adulterant for vanilla extract.

High levels of coumarin in tonka beans serves as natural moth repellent and insecticide. Studies have showed that coumarin are beneficials as pesticides.

Traditional practice which is still in practice today, tonka oil is used as antiseptic, especially in treating pains in the ears. Tonka beans are soaked in tum to treat bruises, snake bites, cuts, and rheumatism.

Effects of Coumarin from Tonka Beans

Coumarin from tonka beans is toxic and taking a dose of even 30 to 60 grains may cause depression, nausea, drowsiness, vomiting, diarrhea, vertigo, sleeplessness, and worst, liver problems. However, there is no sufficient data to know if tonka beans are safe to be used directly to human skin. It is also unsafe to use in pregnancy and breastfeeding activities.


We are warned not to take tonka bean oil internally as it can be very toxic. Using this oil should be avoided if patients are under blood thinning medications.

You may also want to read: 10 Unhealthy Foods with FDA Approval But Unlawful In Other Countries



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