On this page
- Coumarin Banned in Food
- Standards for Vanilla
- Real Vanilla Extract and Flavoring Do Not Contain Coumarin
- Tips for Consumers
Tourists tempted to pick up bargains south of the border should beware of one bargain that isn't a good buy—a so-called “vanilla” flavoring or extract that isn’t vanilla flavoring or extract at all, but instead is made from a completely different plant material that contains coumarin. Coumarin is a substance with potential toxic side effects banned from food in the United States.
This flavoring product may smell like vanilla extract, taste like vanilla extract, and be offered at a cheap price, but it could present a significant risk to some people’s health.
Pure vanilla flavoring and extract are made with the extract of beans from the vanilla plant, a type of orchid that grows as a vine. The product containing coumarin is made from the extract of beans from the tonka tree, an entirely different plant that belongs to the pea family. Tonka bean extract contains coumarin, a compound related to warfarin, which is in some blood-thinning medications. Eating food containing coumarin may be especially risky for people taking blood-thinning drugs because the interaction of coumarin and blood thinners can increase the likelihood of bleeding.
Coumarin is banned from food products sold in the United States. Yet the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) occasionally has found tonka bean extract products containing coumarin in some ethnic food stores and Mexican restaurants in the United States.
These products often are labeled in Spanish “Extracto de vainilla” or “Vainilla.” If these products contain tonka beans rather than vanilla beans, they have been imported illegally into the United States, and FDA advises consumers not to purchase or use these products.
FDA standards specify that only vanilla beans can be used to make vanilla flavorings and extracts for use in food products sold in the United States. Vanilla-like flavorings that don't meet the standard must be labeled as "imitation" vanilla and must be made from safe ingredients that are permitted for that use.
FDA does not allow tonka bean extract even in imitation vanilla. Because they contain coumarin, tonka beans do not meet the food safety requirements for sale in the United States under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
FDA’s import alert on these products is designed to ensure that if coumarin-containing products labeled as vanilla flavoring or extract are shipped through regular commercial channels, FDA and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection will stop them at the border.
Real vanilla extract and flavoring products produced in Mexico or other countries and legally imported into the United States should not contain coumarin and should be safe for use in foods.
Vanilla extract and vanilla flavorings are subject to FDA standards of identity regulations that prescribe how the products are made and their common or usual names. The common or usual name of vanilla extract is “vanilla extract” and should not include the name of the country that is the source of the beans or of the final product. However, if the vanilla extract is imported, the label must declare, separate from the name of the food, the country of origin of the food (for example, “Product of Mexico” ).
Be wary about buying products labeled "Vainilla" or "Extracto de Vainilla" in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Look for "vanilla bean" in the ingredient list on the label. If it has "tonka bean" or if there is no ingredient list or a vague one, do not purchase this product.
- Don't risk your health to save a few dollars. A coumarin-containing product labeled as vanilla extract or flavoring is generally sold at a lower price than pure vanilla flavoring or extract because tonka beans are cheaper to grow than vanilla beans. If the price sounds too good to be true, pass it up.
- Don't buy a food product in the United States that is not labeled in English. Products may have Spanish or other non-English labeling, but they must also have complete English labeling to meet U.S. Government standards. (Products sold only in Puerto Rico are an exception—they are not required to be labeled in English.)
- Call the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator for your geographic area if you suspect that a food product sold in the United States has been imported illegally.
This article appears on the FDA’s Consumer Updates page, which features the latest on all FDA-regulated products.
Updated: March 26, 2009