The Malta Independent 22 March 2023, Wednesday
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Delicious fragrance with contrasting properties – Tonka beans

Tuesday, 3 January 2023, 13:15 Last update: about 4 months ago

Prof. Renald Blundell & Andrea Weronika Gieleta

Dipteryx odorata (commonly known as cumaru, kumaru or Brazilian teak) belongs to species of flowering tree in the pea family - Fabaceae. The tree is native to Central America and northern Southern America and is semi-deciduous (refers to plants losing foliage for quite a short period of time and new foliage follows shortly afterwards). Its seeds are known as tonka beans (Tonkin beans/Tonquin beans). With regards to their appearance, they are black and wrinkled with a smooth, brown interior. The seeds contain a sweet, strong fragrance related to a significant coumarin content.


The word tonka is derived from the Galibi (Carib), which is the language spoken by natives of French Guiana. It is also present in Tupi, a different language used in the same region as the name of the tree.

A great number of anticoagulant medications, such as warfarin, contain 4-hydroxycoumarin which is a chemical derivative of coumarin extracted from the beans. However, coumarin itself does not possess any anticoagulant effects.


Uses and health benefits

Pain relief: Coumarin, which is the main ingredient in tonka bean, is a potent anticoagulant and has analgesic properties which help with pain reduction after surgical procedures. Moreover, it helps with chronic back pains, muscle pain as well as body tension. Additionally, it is also applied as homeopathic pain killer in natural medicine.

Wound healing: Tonka beans show its efficacy in reduction of bruises, faster healing of open wounds as well as deep cuts. Moreover, it contributes to prevention of minor wound infections and can be used during wound care. Essential oils extracted from Tonka beans are linked to reduction of inflammation process.

Blood pressure: Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter commonly found within blood platelets and serum. It helps with contraction of the blood vessels. Therefore, it prevents blood loss, increased vascular resistance and maintains body temperature. Since it aids blood pressure management it also protects blood vessels of the brain from rupture or narrowing which could lead to occlusion of the blood supply leading to a stroke.

Thrombosis: Regular usage of tonka been extracts showed reduction of risks of embolisms as well as deep vein thrombosis. Moreover, individuals suffering from chronic atrial fibrillation can be given coumarin containing treatment.

Aphrodisiacs: Tonka been also found its application in creams or perfumes such as Guerlain's iconic scent Shalimar. On top of that it is rumoured to contain mystical properties. Used within some traditions as a "love-wishing bean" together with summoning courage and incurring money.

Healthy hair: Extract obtained from a tonka been can also be applied on the scalp in order to help with infections as well as inflammation. Moreover, it is used within a cosmetic industry for shampoo and hair oil production which targets inflammation and hair loss.

Pest and insect repellent: Coumarin occurring within Tonka bean is well known for its repellent properties to bugs, mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and other insects. Due to the great amount of coumarin within the bean it is possible to extract it locally in order to produce a homemade spray for homes and pets resembling tea tree oil, peppermint, lavender oil and other natural repellents. Moreover, the extract can be applied to protect small children from mosquito bites and prevention of parasites targeting dogs, cats, horses and other domestic mammals.


Culinary uses

Fermentation process allows coumarin-like flavouring to be extracted from the seed.

  • It is commercial used as a vanilla substitute in flavouring a vast range of products such as baked goods, ice cream, cocoa, etc.
  • The pulp within the seedpod is consumed raw
  • Seeds can be eaten after boiling in order to remove the toxins


Conventional usages and advantages

  • The seeds can be utilised and serve as a treatment for stomach discomfort, cough as well as dysentery
  • Tonka beans show anti-asthmatic, antispasmodic and cardiotonic properties
  • Decoction obtained from the seeds together with sugar is used as a cold treatment
  • Decoction mixed with the crushed plant of tonina fluviatilis is used for preparation of an infant fortifier
  • Oils gathered from the seeds help in reduction of stomach aches, treat mouth sores and improve hair growth
  • Cold water infusion containing the leaves is used as irrigation for ear pain
  • The seeds are composed of coumarin, which is commonly used in fragrances as well as tobacco and whiskey seasoning
  • Extracts obtained from the plant have been utilised in conventional medicine and showed to be effective in treatment of cramps and nausea
  • In China seeds' extracts have been administered rectally for schistosomiasis (disease caused by parasitic worms)
  • It can be used as a booster for the immune system
  • Decoction obtained from the cumaru tree bark is used as treatment for fevers
  • Crushed tonka beans put in a tea or any organic brew shows benefits in treatment of various health problems such as disorientation, anxiety, self-destructive habits and confusion


Fascinating facts

Tonka beans as a major source of coumarin: Coumarin can be found in cinnamon, tobacco, e-cigarettes, cosmetics, deodorants, hand soap, shower gels as well as detergents.

The USA is the greatest importer of Tonka beans: Even though Tonka beans are legally banned in the USA since 1954, it is legal to involve coumarin in tobacco products and cosmetics. The import of the USA is highly linked to the tobacco industry.

Tonka beans present a powerful scent profile: A very insignificant amount of this product is enough to produce a rich and memorable aroma. When applied in cuisine it is claimed by chefs that a single Tonka bean can add taste to as many as 80 dishes!

Tonka beans should not be consumed in large amounts: Unfortunately, these beans can be extremely poisonous and, in some instances, even lethal. However, it is proved that a minimum of 30 Tonka beans would have to be consumed in order to reach dangerous levels. Nevertheless, nutmeg or any other spices, ingested in such an amount are considered potentially poisonous.

Tonka beans show aroma-therapeutic qualities: Tonka beans are shown to promote relaxation, reduce stress and anxiety, decrease tension as well as improve the immune system. They found their use in medicine such as treatment for cramps, nausea, caught, spams and tuberculosis.

90% of perfumes contain coumarin: This can be easily checked by reviewing the list of ingredients allocated on the perfume product packaging. It is estimated that every other perfume worldwide contains more than 1%  of coumarin.



About the authors

Renald Blundell is a biochemist and biotechnologist with a special interest in natural and alternative medicine. He is a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, University of Malta


Andrea Weronika Gieleta is a registered nurse and is currently a medical student at the University of Malta

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