Scientific Name(S): Dipteryx odorata (Aubl.) Willd. Also D. oppositifolia may be used. Family: Fabaceae (Leguminosae)
Common Name(S): Tonka bean, tonga bean, tongo bean, tonco seed, tonquin bean, torquin bean, cumaru, tonco bean
Members of the genus Dipteryx are native to South America (Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil), and are typically large trees bearing single-seeded fruits about 3 to 5 cm in length. The fruit is dried with the seed removed. If not processed further, the fruit is known as "black beans." The beans are macerated in rum and then air-dried. This treatment results in the formation of a crystalline deposit of coumarin and the seeds appear to be frosted.
Tonka beans are rounded at one end and bluntly pointed at the other. The bean is black and deeply wrinkled longitudinally. The bean has a very fragrant odor and an aromatic, bitter taste.
Tonka bean contains the element coumarin that is used as a flavoring in foods and tobacco, as well as a fragrance in cosmetics. Otherwise, tonka beans have no proven pharmacological effects.
If ingested in safe amounts, tonka beans do not have any potent side effects. When ingested in animals, ingredients in the tonka bean have caused severe hepatic damage, growth retardation, and testicular atrophy. Large doses of the fluid extract can result in cardiac paralysis.
Tonka beans contain the chemical coumarin. Coumarin is used in the food, cosmetic and related industries to impart a pleasant fragrance to cakes, preserves, tobacco, soaps and liqueurs. The seeds are sometimes cured in rum. However, according to the FDA Code of Federal Regulations Section 189.130, food containing any coumarin as a constituent of tonka beans or tonka extracts is deemed to be impure. Synthetic coumarin has, to some extent, replaced the natural product.
South American natives mix the seed paste with milk to make a thick nutty flavored beverage. Extracts of the plant have been used in traditional medicine to treat cramps and nausea, as well as a tonic. Seed extracts are administered rectally for schistosomiasis in China. The fruit has been said to have aphrodisiac properties.
Coumarin is present in 1 % to 3% (by weight) of the fermented seed, but some strains may contain up to 10%. Tonka beans also contain 25% fat (containing unsaponifiable sitosterin and stigmasterin) and a larger amount of starch. Coumarin has an odor reminiscent of vanillin. Umbelliferone (7-hydroxycoumarin) has been isolated from the seed. A number of related isoflavones have been isolated from the heartwood, including odoratin and dipteryxin. The bark exudes a resin that contains lupeol, betulin, and other minor components.
Tonka beans contain the chemical coumarin. Coumarin is used as a flavoring in foods and tobacco, as well as a fragrance in cosmetics. Coumarin is safe when ingested in normal food-level amounts, but may cause severe hepatic damage when ingested in large amounts. According to the FDA Code of Federal Regulations Section 189.130, food containing any coumarin as a constituent of tonka beans or tonka extracts is deemed to be impure.
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