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Tonka Beans

When considering illegal substances, tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata, Fabaceae) may not be well-known, but it has been illegal in the United States since 1954.1,2 The bean’s high coumarin content may be lethal in high doses and may cause liver disease and cancer. Coumarin is found in a number of edible plants, including cherries (Prunus avium, Rosaceae) and strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa, Rosaceae). Isolated in 1820, coumarin derives its name from the evergreen tree that produces the chemical—the cumaru tree from the Caribbean coumarou.1 It was synthesized synthetically and has been used as a flavoring agent for sodas and sweets, imparting a vanilla-like flavor, as well as medicinally, including the drug warfarin, an anticoagulant. Still used as a flavoring agent in some high-end restaurants, despite the legality issues, tonka bean can be obtained on the internet and through various other sources.2 However, the Federal Drug Administration has been known to conduct raids on restaurants’ spice cabinets.

The cumaru tree can be found in Brazil, Venezuela, Trinidad, British Guiana, and other tropical South American countries, as well as Africa.3,4 In the Amazonian rainforest, the trees can grow up to 100 feet in height. The violet flowers bloom every five years.4 The beans, obtained from the ripe fruit, are wrinkled, black, and oval-shaped. The beans are soaked in alcohol, often rum, for up to 24 hours which causes them to swell.5 After removal from the alcohol, the dried seeds produce a coumarin “crystalline frosting.” Tonka beans have been used traditionally to flavor desserts such as chocolate and sweet breads and can also be eaten fresh.2 In traditional medicine, the beans are used as a narcotic and heart tonic and an extract as a treatment for whooping cough.4 The beans contain around 50% fatty acids and a butter, known as “tonquin butter,” can be produced from the beans contains 94-96% fatty acids, with oleic acid being predominant.3,4 The flavor of the butter is said to be like bitter almond with a hint of flowers.

The beans can be extracted by solvents to form an absolute which is solid at room temperature. Because of the tenacious scent, a 20% dilution of the absolute can be used for making perfumes. The fragrance is rich, vanilla-earth, moist with a hint of cherry, notes of hay and honey, and a caramel undertone.4,5 As a base note, it is a good fixative.

Tonka beans have been used for “love magic”, with the caveat that the bean should never be crushed.4

Lori Glenn
HerbClip™ Managing Editor


1Gorvett Z. The delicious flavour with a toxic secret. BBC website. June 20, 2017. Accessed April 11, 2022.

2Solomon A. When banning a food makes it sweeter. Taste website. February 13, 2018. Accessed April 11, 2022.

3Rose J. Tonka bean EO. Jeanne Rose Aromatherapy Blog website. July 7, 2016. Accessed April 11, 2022.

4Rhind JP. Fragrance and Wellbeing – Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche. London: Singing Dragon; 2014.

5Arctander S. Perfume and Flavor Materials of Natural Origin. Evansville, IL: Orchard Innovations; 2019.