The Real Reason Tonka Beans Are Illegal In The US

Those familiar with tonka beans are likely aware that their flavor and aroma are deeply desired among chefs worldwide. The beans have a unique taste and scent, which The Atlantic describes as a combination of vanilla, cherry, and cinnamon. And the flavor changes depending on whether the beans are used in a hot dish or a cold one. The bottom line is they're unlike any other ingredient — yet they're illegal in the United States.

Some European chefs might use the tonka bean as added flavor in ice cream, while others choose to shave it over warm pastries to create a distinct flavor profile, according to Atlas Obscura. At first glance, this legume resembles a cross between a wrinkled raisin and an old almond, though it packs a punch far greater than either. Atlas Obscura says that one bean has enough flavor to complement 80 dishes. But if tonka beans are so loved around the world, why are they illegal in the U.S.?

Tonka beans can cause liver damage

The answer is simple, at least to the Food and Drug Administration: Tonka beans are harmful to your health. According to the FDA, tonka beans contain a chemical known as coumarin. When consumed in excess, coumarin can cause serious liver problems. As a result, back in the 1950s, the FDA banned any ingredient containing the chemical from consumption in the U.S. With that, chefs were forced to eliminate the tonka bean from their dishes.

However, The Atlantic suggests that the FDA's ban on coumarin could be outdated, given that it would take eating about 30 whole beans for those coumarin levels to become seriously dangerous. Since one bean provides enough flavor for 80 dishes, it's highly unlikely that anyone casually consuming tonka beans would encounter any medical issue. Still, the FDA has remained strict on its ban, so much so that the administration even raided Alinea, a Chicago restaurant, in 2006 after rumors struck that tonka beans were used in its menu.