Imitation Vanilla Flavoring: Vanillin, Coumarin, and Tonka Beans

Sometimes an old recipe isn’t so hot, especially when it contains an ingredient that could be harmful to your health. Especially in the case of old recipes using the imitation vanilla flavors ‘Imitation Vanillin,’ ‘Coumarin,’ and ‘Vanilla and Tonka Flavor.’ I was intrigued by these flavors that I found in an old Perfection Recipe Book by Avon Products, Inc.

I’m not sure when it was printed, but the published book had this interesting note to the readers regarding packaging – which indicates that all of the products were being sold during wartime, and used prior:

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.


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 humans, however 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.

Courmarin and Tonka Beans

Coumarin happens to be a naturally occurring compound in plants (cinnamon, tonka beans, apricots, sweet clover, etc), but it is also chemically manufactured as a perfume ingredient (benzopryone). It has a vanilla-like flavor but with a hay-like smell. What makes it harmful to the body: it acts as a blood thinner and has found to be toxic for the liver and kidneys. It is still found in certain alcoholic drinks, like Maiwein and Żubrówka, because 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, actually legumes, from the pea family. They are no longer used in processed foods 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.

  • “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.

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