Bean Me Up Scotty!
You know how Kinder Egg Surprises are illegal in the US? How weird is it that a little chocolate egg could get you stopped at border patrol!?
Of course, that’s not the only food illegal in America or any other country, and usually there’s some valid reasons for particular ingredients being banned. Maybe the harvesting of it is unethical, perhaps there’s a livestock disease associated with it, or maybe the food is simply dangerous to consume.
Tonka beans are one such food, except they shouldn’t be…?
Dipteryx odorata beans, or Tonka beans as they’re more commonly known, are a hard, dry spice native to northern South America. They grow on massive trees in the Amazon and have been illegal in the United States since 1954. But despite this, many chefs in America have items on their menus which contain tonka beans and haven’t let the criminal aspect of the ingredient stop them from getting their hands on the stuff.
Because apparently, tonka beans are delicious.
They’ve been dubbed “the most delicious ingredient”, and apparently have a very complex and unique flavour profile; Rich, Vanilla-ry, sweet, nutty, cinnamon-y, clove-y goodness, according to the internet (I’ve never touched the stuff… yet). Usually, they’re shaved over meals as a sort of garnish, a bit like nutmeg, and a little goes a long way.
So why then, are people forced to find “dealers” to smuggle these illegal beans into the country? Why do the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) quite literally raid the pantries of gourmet restaurants? Oh, how sinister…
Simply put, it’s because these beans hold a deadly secret. Again, quite literally.
Namely, the chemical “coumarin” is the issue.
Coumarin was used as an artificial flavouring for many decades before it was found to be toxic in large enough doses after tests on dogs and rat, and so it was outlawed along with Tonka beans for their unusually high amount of the stuff. The key phrase there is “large enough” because it explains why professional and hobbyist foodies persist in shaving death over their dinner and desserts.
The amount of tonka bean it takes to cause any significant harm is 30.
Not 30 grams.
30 whole beans.
Once you consider that 30 whole beans are equivalent to same amount it takes for cinnamon or nutmeg to kill you too, you can segue into a whole slew of very spicy questions.
Why are those legal and this ol’ shrivelled up bean not? I survived the 2012 cinnamon challenge trend… am I lucky to be alive???
I’m not sure about the latter, but as for the first query, it’s mostly just the FDA’s way of playing it really safe. There is no record of a tonka-bean-induced death, and if anything, we humans could consume even more coumarin-by-bodyweight than dogs or cats due to the way our bodies break down the chemical.
But we can’t test the limits of the human body in the face of the beans, because that would involve, you know, death-by-bean.
So, take from all of that what you will, but since we live in Australia, I’m probably going to go get myself some Amazonian beans from Bezos.