This is the bean that’s been highly revered for an awesome flavor that’s also highly deadly.

Think of all the stuff that are illegal yet has been the opium of the people. Marijuana, coca, and opium itself, not to mention only drugs, but that’s what the heck is going on. You’d least know about tonka: this flavor little bean is the royal sweetener, haute cuisine. Not only will you get busted in the United States, or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) placing you on their most wanted list; it’s because, well, the bean might slay you for sure. Oh! a death by a five star cuisine might be tasty.

Related media: The Most Delicious Ingredient You’ve Never Heard Of


Deadly Beaning

The tonka bean is a wrinkly, raisin-like legume from South America. It’s transcendent flavor and aroma (it’s huge in the perfume world) has been described as having notes of vanilla, cherry, almond, spicy cinnamon, cloves, and maybe the dust of unicorn horns. According to a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report, tonka is “the most delicious ingredient you’ve never heard of.” It’s very potent that the shavings of a single bean could serve roughly 80 plates.

Unfortunately (or is it fortunate), the bean is illegal in the United States. The FDA banned the chemical ingredient found in tonka, coumarin, in 1954. Foods containing the chemical is deemed “adulterated” by the FDA. (However, it’s legal in Canada, though).


Smuggling The Deadly Aroma

Despite being illegal for a very long while in the United States, you’ll find tonka being served in most restaurants across the country. As a matter of fact, the United States is the biggest importer of tonka on the whole planet. Oh my word! The flavory opium is smuggled into the country by the top chefs, and are willing to risk it. Grant Achatz, a renowned chef of Chicago’s world-class Alinea, told the Atlantic about a warning call from his tonka supplier:

“They said, ‘Don’t be surprised if the FDA shows up soon.’ […] Two days later, they walked in: Can we look at your spice cabinet?”

That’s what the United States is very good at, busting. The dangerous claim is that tonka beans —  or coumarin to be more specific — is highly toxic.

“As long as you don’t use a copious amount of it — obviously a copious amount could cause death — it really is delicious,” Thomas Raquel, head pastry chef at the Michelin-starred Le Bernardin in New York, told the BBC.


Killing Me Sweetly

Image: Shutterstock / iStock / Getty Images Plus

They say too much of everything is bad. Obviously! But how much dose of coumarin is too much? Relatively low doses of the stuff did cause liver damage in dogs and rats in a matter of weeks, according to research. But here’s the catch: there’s probably a fair amount of coumarin in your regular type of cinnamon (cassia) in your cabinet right now as we speak. Huh? Don’t worry. Coumarin is a common ingredient added to household stuff like cosmetics, deodorants, hand soap, shower gels, and detergents.

In fact, there hasn’t been any reported cases of death caused by coumarin, and some calling for the lift of the ban. That doesn’t mean that the stuff isn’t dangerous. Perhaps the FDA’s ban on coumarin was probably mistaking the stuff for the similarly named trademarked blood-thinner Coumadin. The current coumarin consumption limit for most people is probably “ultra-conservative,” the BBC reports.

According to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), 0.1 milligram of coumarin per kilogram body weight (the “ultra-conservative” limit) can be ingested daily over a lifetime without posing a risk to health. The tonka bean is indeed deadly if overdosed, with a single bean more than enough for over 80 servings, then it seems an accidental overdose isn’t likely as we think.


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Written by: Nana Kwadwo, Fri, Jan 11, 2019.

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