One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to taste the different flavors in different places. I like to seek out restaurants with young chefs, visit farmer’s markets, and check out the shops where locals do their grocery shopping. On a recent trip to Paris, I discovered the taste of tonka while enjoying an especially delicious creme brulee with an unusual almondy, spicey, vanilla flavor. After much discussion with our server, a visit by the restaurant chef, and an internet search, my husband and I discovered South American tonka beans and that it is illegal to bring them into the United States, which is why the flavor was so new to us both.
I was curious why these delicious beans were banned in the US, but not in Europe or Canada. The law dates back to 1954. Tonka contains a chemical compound called coumarin, as does Cassia cinnamon, strawberries, cherries, green tea, lavender, and several other plant foods. Coumarin in high doses has been shown to cause liver damage in animals, may contribute to cognitive impairment and cancer, and when chemically altered becomes the precursor to the blood-thinning drug, Coumadin. The news is not all bad for coumarin. Coumarin has been shown to reduce inflammation and to be especially helpful in reducing pain in lymphodema.
At least for now, tonka beans remain one of those special discoveries we made on a trip and I look forward to rediscovering them on another adventure.