Why this Chocolate is Illegal in the US

Tonka Beans

Tonka Beans

French chocolate artisans, known as 'chocolatiers', and chefs around the world utilize the precious shriveled up tonka bean to impart intense caramel, vanilla, honey and cherry notes to both sweet and savory concoctions. Not so for American chefs as it's been illegal in the U.S. since 1954.

The bewrinkled and potent tonka bean comes from the fruit of the Brazilian teak tree that grows deep in the jungles of South America. Though the bean is illegal in the U.S., the wood from the tree is made into colorful and expensive flooring and cabinetry in North America.  

When my father was growing up tonka bean was used as the main flavor ingredient in his cream soda, his mother's artificial vanilla extract and perfume as well as his father's pipe tobacco. The U.S. FDA however considers any food containing coumarin as 'adulterated' and illegal because if rats are given high doses of the coumarin (a component of tonka) they develop liver issues.

Licorice, cinnamon and lavender contain similar amounts of coumarin but are not regulated like tonka; perhaps the tonka bean lobby was not as well funded as the others. In the midst of the financial crisis 2006-2009 the government was busy cracking down on gourmet chefs like Grant Achatz, the head chef at Chicago restaurant Alinea and raiding their spice cabinets for tonka.

Big pharma synthetically converts coumarin into a drug called Coumadin, an anti-coagulant. Coumarin in its natural form is not a blood thinning drug. The shavings from one tonka bean might be enough make 80 - 120 pieces of chocolate or 80 savory dishes. At least 30 beans would need to be eaten to be toxic to the liver (240 servings i.e. 1 gram total of coumarin) which is the same warning for nutmeg. Not sure about you but I don't eat 240 servings of anything at one go.

I've only discovered two chocolate shops in Paris' Marais district that have tonka added to their ganache bonbons. Let me just say that when my guests sample it during my chocolate tours, it blows them away! Just like folks can only visit nine states in the U.S. to buy recreational weed, Americans are currently only able to partake in tonka bean infused chocolate in France.

For the Love of Chocolate!