Saturday, January 15, 2011

What's in Imitation Vanilla - Coumarin and Tonka Bean Danger

Sometimes an old recipe isn't so hot, especially when it contains an ingredient that could be harmful to your health. It is in the case of old recipes using 'Imitation Vanillin,' 'Coumarin,' and 'Vanilla and Tonka Flavor.' I was intrigued by these flavors I found in an old Perfection Recipe Book by Avon Products, Inc. I'm not sure when it was printed, but on the inside had this interesting note to the readers:
Only Perfection Olive Oil is not available now, due to war conditions....You will notice some changes in the packaging of Perfection products - some of the metal containers have had to be replaced with glass or specially-process cardboard.
All this indicates that these products were being sold during wartime, and used prior. And I wanted to find out if this 'new' old flavoring was something to get excited about, and if it could be recreated, or found and used at home. It turns out this stuff was hazardous to human,s but it is still being manufactured in other countries since it is a cheap alternative to pure vanilla extract. It is also a popular for use in perfumes.
Imitation Vanillin, Coumarin, Vanilla and Tonka Flavor

So, just what is coumarin, tonka and all that stuff? 

Coumarin happens to be a naturally occurring compound in plants (cinnamon, tonka beans, apricots, sweet clover, etc) but is also chemically manufactured (benzopryone) as a perfume ingredient. It has a vanilla-like flavor but has a hay-like smell. What it does to the body: it acts as a blood thinner and has found to be toxic for the liver and kidney organs. It is still found in certain alcoholic drinks, like Maiwein and Żubrówka, because of the ingredients in them contain coumarin naturally: Maiwein is a German drink made with sweet woodruff and Żubrówka is a Polish vodka flavored with buffalo grass. Both woodruff and buffalo grass are known to contain naturally occurring coumarin.

Tonka beans are small beans, and are actually legumes, from the pea family. Why they are no longer in processed foods now is because they contain coumarin. Tonka beans have a vanilla-caramel flavor, and are still used for perfumes and cosmetics here in the U.S. While the United States prohibits the use of coumarin-containing products (like tonka beans in particular) to be used in food production, France still uses tonka beans in pastry production.

Tonka Bean whole 1 oz
Tonka Beans: Can be purchased through


Sources and More Information:
  • "Some 'Vanilla Extract' Produced in Mexico is No Bargain." U. S. Food and Drug Administration. March 2009. Site Accessed 15 January 2011.
  • "Maiwein." Wikipedia. 3 August 2010. Site Accessed 15 January 2011.
  • Woehrlin F, Fry H, Abraham K, Preiss-Weigert A."Quantification of flavoring constituents in cinnamon: high variation of coumarin in cassia bark from the German retail market and in authentic samples from indonesia." Abstract. National Center for Biotechnology Information, U. S. National Library of Medicine. 13 October 2010. Site Accessed 15 January 2011.  
  • "What is Coumarin?" Site Accessed 15 January 2011.
  • "Żubrówka." Wikipedia. 4 December 2010. Site Accessed 15 January 2011.
  • More info: Coumarins : Biology, Applications, and Mode of Action

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