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…?

A Flowering Tonka Bean Tree, from Tatters, Flickr

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.

Two and a Half Tonka Beans, from Wikimedia Commons

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???

Please Grate Your Tonka Beans, from Йоана Петрова, Flickr

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.


10 Responses to “Bean Me Up Scotty!”

  1. Jordy Mcdonald says:

    Thanks for the comment George!
    Thankfully I don’t think anyone has ever had the bright idea of having 30 tonka beans!
    As far as I can tell there hasn’t been a recorded death directly caused by coumarin consumption either, so there’s really no telling how many someone could get away with eating.

  2. Jordy Mcdonald says:

    Thanks for the comment Angelique!
    Before 1954 (when they were made illegal), coumarin isolated from tonka beans was used as an artificial flavour additive, a bit like a cheaper version of vanilla. Eventually they figured out prolonged intake of larger doses of coumarin can cause damage to the liver, hence the ban on the beans as they have around 1% coumarin content (cinnamon has around 0.7% I believe). Coumarin is still used as an additive though, just not in food (things like perfume and sunscreen).

  3. Jordy Mcdonald says:

    Thanks for the comment Isini!
    The answer isn’t quite clear cut, but Tonka beans are considered safe to eat by Food Standards Australia New Zealand as long as they’re cooked or prepared properly (and consumed in an appropriate dosage of course!).
    You’re right though, in that Australia tends to follow along with the FDA; The Therapeutic Goods Administration reviews and adjusts what the FDA put out. In regards to coumarin, they detail some sensible restrictions on coumarin content in medication and require it be listed as an active ingredient.

  4. hhxing says:

    sounds delicious, got to try them if possible!

  5. Isini Buthgamuwa says:

    Hi Jordy!

    Nature continues to amaze me and having read your blog post, I am in awe of the many hidden produce that remains hidden from our eyes. I hadn’t even heard of Tonka beans until I read your post, but now I’m super eager to try them.
    Is the use of these beans legalised in Australia? I know that Australia generally follows FDA rules when it comes to food approvals, so I’m guessing it’s not?

    Thanks for enlightening me on this slight toxic, yet tasty bean!

  6. Angelique Milevski says:

    Hi Jordy!
    Thanks so much for your very cool blog post, I really loved it.
    I found it so surprising that Tonka beans are illegal when it takes 30 of them to cause harm, especially when items like cigarettes are legal despite the toxins used to make them – seems quite hypocritical. I was wondering what Tonka beans were previously used for (before becoming illegal) and what the side effects are?

  7. eewent says:

    That was a great fun read and now I’m super interested to get myself some of those Tonka beans if possible.

  8. faroos says:

    That was a very interesting read Jordy! I had heard of Tonka beans but never knew that they could be so lethal (obviously in large amounts). The description of the taste doesn’t really go with my palette but I can see the appeal!

  9. George Mechaalani says:

    Hi Jordy,

    The post was really interesting, never really considered this until now! Has there been a real-life case whereby someone may have had 30 of these beans?

  10. Ethan Newnham says:

    I always loved kinder surprises… but now I have a justification, thanks 🙂