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Why tonka bean is so good and bad at the same time

Within the world of tropical botany, we find plants that manage to accumulate substances and phytocomponents very interesting for modern medicine.

Specifically, the seed of tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) is a Fabaceae from which significant quantities have been extracted from the coumarin a powerful anticoagulant related to warfarin (a drug for this purpose).

In fact, because of its pronounced vanilla flavor, tonka bean has become a reputed ingredient for Michelin-starred chefs and cooks around the world. A mixture between caramel, vanilla, licorice, and cloves.

The danger comes when high amounts of this bean are used, which entails a high contribution of coumarin and potentially toxic, which has led to controlling the distribution and sale of tonka bean to avoid its disproportionate use.

The tree that produces the seed of the tonka bean

We have to enter the family Fabaceae, the Fabaceae, to find the species whose scientific name is Dipteryx odorata.

Properties of tonka bean

It is a tropical crop typical of the areas of the American continent with high humidity and temperature, such as in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela, among others.

From each fruit only one seed is extracted, of black color, which reaches between 3 and 4 cm long and 1 cm wide.

If we approach the seed to the nose, we will notice tones related to vanilla, cinnamon, almond or cloves.

In fact, in cosmetics it is often used as a substitute at a better price for vanilla.

To extract the seed from the tree Dipteryx odorata, as in other plants, once the fruits have their optimum level of ripeness, they are left to dry to facilitate the extraction of the tonka bean. Later they are soaked in alcohol (rum) for cleaning and this causes the coumarin to form a characteristic crystallization that leaves whitish and transparent tones (as with sugar).

History of use

The Tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) it is a seed that is currently highly coveted for use in cosmetics and perfumery due to its portentous vanilla smell.

This fragrance has led it to be used also as an additive or complement in desserts and cakes, scratching the seed on the coating of the sweet.

For the preparation of certain alcoholic beverages, a small amount of this compound has also been incorporated.

However, the Food and Drug Administration has warned of the high levels of coumarin contained in Tonka bean and the dangers of excessive consumption of this substance.

Medicinal properties of tonka bean

Precisely, there is a list of compounds, in addition to the aforementioned coumarin, which in adequate doses have a positive effect on the body.

Let’s see some of its components and the scientifically studied effect to check the results.

Phytocomponent content

  • Coumarin (between 1 and 3% of the dry weight)
  • Sitosterin
  • Stigmasterin
  • Odoratin
  • Dipteryxin
  • Isoflavones (7-hydroxy-4′, 6-dimethoxyisoflavone and 3′, 7-dihydroxy-4′, 6-dimethoxyisoflavone)
  • Dipeteric acid
  • Lariciresinol

One of the most famous compounds of tonka bean seed is coumarin, a benzopyrone whose name is related to this plant and tonka legume.  Its intake, in specific doses, is beneficial for the body. On the other hand, an abuse of this compound has negative consequences, which we will talk about later.

1 Anticoagulant effect

One of the main effects of tonka bean (Dipteryx odorata) it is the great anticoagulant potential that has its main component, coumarin.

This is interesting for people who are at risk of thrombi, especially in older people, where in many cases they use drugs, such as warfarin, to achieve this effect.

This drug is a synthetic derivative of benzopyrone from coumarin, so in no case would its consumption be recommended for people suffering from platelet problems.and lack of coagulation.

To give an example of its harmful properties if the dose is high, this coumarin is used, in large concentrations as a rodenticide, with a high reduction of coagulation in the blood.

The coumarin, as such, does not have a direct effect on blood clotting. However, when transformed by the action of organisms such as fungi, it is converted to dicumarol, with many anticoagulant properties.

This compound, dicumarol, was the cause of the well-known sweet clover disease in cattle that fed on this plant. From here, many anticoagulants have been studied for application in medicine.

2 Expectorant properties

Among the natural compounds found in the Tonka bean, we find those that activate secretion and expectorant capacity. Therefore, the advantages of this bean to reduce the symptoms of cough and asthma are being studied, due to its antispasmodic effect.

This can be interesting for situations in which we do not manage to reduce a high concentration of mucous membranes in bronchi and lungs that can end up generating respiratory infection.

3 Chemopreventive activity of the Tonka bean

One of the most studied effects of Tonka bean is its possible chemoprotective and chemopreventive potential against different types of cancer.

This effect is sought based on the compound isolichirigenin found in this plant, for its quinone reductase activity at the cellular level.

What has been seen, a priori, is a significant reduction in the formation of prenoplastic lesions in mice affected with carcinogens.

Eleavation in quinone reductase markers allows greater activity of protective enzymes and a chemoprotective and preventive effect on cell formation and multiplication that causes cancer.

It is still too early to draw conclusions but its potential effects on the body are still being investigated.

4 Insecticidal activity

Tonka bean coumarin, in high doses, has an insecticidal effect against different types of mites. The most studied has been the well-known dust mite (Dermatophagoides pteronyssinies), with a significant reduction in stocks to a very low dosi (0.032 g/m2 area).

This potential effect is similar, with fewer side effects than benzyl benzoate, an insecticide commonly used for this same purpose (0.025 g/m2 surface).

A cyclohexane extract from tonka beans was toxic to the common pyroglyph house dust mite Dermatophagoides pteronyssinies, showing a dose-dependent acaricidal effect. Coumarin was identified as the active component.

5 Antiseptic activity

Together with the previous point, it is important to know the reproducibility of the insecticidal effect against colonies of microorganisms and bacteria and its antiseptic effect.

The scientific community is evaluating the results. A priori it seems that it has an effect against skin infections and improves the healing of bruises, cuts and insect bites.

6 Antioxidant activity

Antioxidant and free radical-protective effects have been found in the phenolic compounds (formed by carbon rings) of the Tonka bean.

This is given by the activity of coumarins and the whole set of flavonoids present that we have mentioned before (flavones and isoflavones, flavonols, fla- vanonas).

Currently, an attempt is being made to scientifically relate the antioxidant effects of Tonka bean and its chemopreventive effect at the cellular level.

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Contraindications and dangers of Tonka bean

The main problem with the consumption of Tonka bean is its high concentration in coumarin, whose accumulation in the body can be lethal to livers and kidneys from 275 mg / kg. The main organ affected is the liver, since it is responsible for filtering waste and toxic elements in the blood. The same goes for the kidneys and urine.

In no case is its consumption recommended if a medical specialist is not consulted beforehand, especially in patients who suffer from coagulation problems or are taking any medication related to warfarin.

Undoubtedly, more information from the scientific community is needed to reach conclusions about its consumption. At the moment it is still marketed and is neCeased a control measure to establish maximum doses.


About Laurie Cullen

Laurie Cullen is a renowned wellness specialist committed to holistic health and well-being. With extensive training in nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness practices, she empowers individuals to lead healthier lives. Laurie's approach focuses on creating sustainable lifestyle changes, emphasizing the importance of balanced nutrition, regular exercise, and stress management. Her guidance has transformed the lives of many, helping them achieve optimal physical and mental health. Laurie's dedication to holistic wellness and her ability to inspire and educate others have solidified her reputation as a trusted source of guidance in the pursuit of healthier, happier lives.

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