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FDA Warns on Mexican Vanilla

Nov 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just issued a warning about so-called Mexican "vanilla" that has been found to be typically made with a toxic substance called coumarin.  The FDA issued the warning this week and is advising consumer not to buy this product.

Mexican vanilla, which is known to smell and taste like real vanilla, but is cheaper than real vanilla, is generally sold in Mexico and other Latin American countries.  The tainted Mexican vanilla has begun to show up in U.S. stores and restaurants according to the FDA.  Where pure vanilla is made with the extract of beans from the vanilla plant, Mexican vanilla is frequently made with the extract of beans from the tonka tree.  The tonka tree is not related to the vanilla plant and is part of the pea family.  Also, tonka bean extract contains coumarin, which has been banned from all food products sold in the U.S. since 1954.

Coumarin and warfarin are related substances found in some blood thinners.  For those people taking blood thinners, eating foods with coumarin could be dangerous since the combination of the medications and the tainted products could increase the risk of bleeding.  Coumarin ingestion can cause a loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, or blurred vision as well as unusual bleeding or bruising, blood in the urine or stools, and severe headache.  Symptoms of an allergic reaction to coumarin include rash, itching, swelling, dizziness, and trouble breathing.

Warfarin, also known as Coumadin, is used in treating patients with blood clots in the lower extremities in order to prevent extension of the clot, and to reduce the risk of pulmonary embolism. Patients with pulmonary embolism are treated with Coumadin to prevent further blood clot emboli and is also used in patients with atrial fibrillation and artificial heart valves in order to reduce the risk of strokes.  Warfarin is also used in the prevention of blood clot formation in certain orthopedic surgeries such as knee or hip replacements and is used in preventing blood clot closure of coronary artery stents.  The two most serious side effects from Warfarin are bleeding and necrosis—or gangrene—of the skin; bleeding can occur in any organ or tissue and bleeding around the brain can cause severe headache and paralysis while bleeding in the joints can cause joint pain and swelling.  Bleeding in the stomach or intestines can cause weakness, fainting spells, black tarry stools, vomiting of blood, or coffee ground material.  Bleeding in the kidneys can cause back pain and blood in urine.  Warfarin’s other side effects include purple, painful toes, rash, hair loss, bloating, diarrhea, and jaundice and overdose can include bleeding gums, bruising, nosebleeds, heavy menstrual bleeding, and prolonged bleeding from cuts.

The FDA is advising consumers to be cautious when buying vanilla in Mexico and other Latin American countries, to look for "vanilla bean" on the label's ingredient list, and to not buy the product if it says "tonka bean" or has a vague ingredient list or no list.

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