Coca in Peruvian Market. Photo by Zoe Helene © 2010

Coca Leaf – Benefits and Controversy

Common Name

Coca Leaf

Botanical Name

Erythroxylum coca
Coca Leaf
Erythroxylum coca
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Shaman Dona Lucy reading the Coca leaves, Peruvian Andes

Coca leaf has certainly been an object of controversy for centuries, and has been alternately praised and condemned... Coca tea is good for you, but cocaine can kill you. - Chris Kilham, Fox News Health

When the Spanish discovered Peru they ventured into the interior of the country where they found the widespread cultivation of coca. Ignorant of the plant, its uses and its effects, the Spanish mocked its cultivation by the Peruvians, to whom the plant was considered a divine gift. Cultivation of coca was performed with reverence and care, priests used the leaves in virtually all ceremonies and rituals, and it was considered inauspicious and foolhardy to attempt to propitiate the gods without giving respect to coca by employing it in the process. The leaf was so highly valued it was used as currency. In the 1560’s, the Spanish made attempts to eradicate coca production due to a belief that the plant and its use were inherently evil, but these efforts were to little avail. Eventually Spanish laboring in the thin atmosphere of the Peruvian highlands discovered the fatigue-allaying virtues of the plant and became its users instead of its persecutors.

In 1722, Jesuit priest Father Antonio Julian published a book entitled Perla de America, in which he praised the virtues of coca and recommended it to Europeans as a more beneficial alternative to coffee and tea. In 1793, physician Don Pedro Rolasco Crespo wrote a pamphlet praising the salutary virtues of coca, and recommended it for use by sailors. Baron Ernst Von Bibra, a pioneer researcher in the field of mind-altering plants, wrote on coca in his brilliant 1855 publication Die narkotischen Genussmittel und der Mensch. In doing so he brought coca further to the attention of European the scientific and medical community.

Coca leaf’s relation to global society changed forever when cocaine, the primary alkaloid in coca responsible for the leaf’s invigorating effects was isolated by German chemist Albert Niemann in 1860. Thus the world had at its disposal suddenly and without preparation a highly potent stimulant in concentrated form. A veritable blizzard of cocaine-fortified products gained prominence in Europe and the United States. Among the most popular of these was Vin Tonique Mariani, patented in the 1860’s by a chemist named Angelo Mariani from the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Ulysses S. Grant consumed Vin Tonique Mariani in milk daily near the end of his life. President William McKinley was an enthusiastic user of Vin Tonique Mariani, as was inventor Thomas Edison. Writers Jules Verne and H.G.Wells also turned to the elixir for inspiration.

Cocaine was Christmas morning for the market ambitions of drug giant Parke Davis, which took up dispensing the drug to an eager American public with alacrity and dispatch. In the 1880’s, Parke Davis released a plethora of products, including candies, tablets, sprays, gargles and ointments, which all contained pure cocaine. Cocaine also had a supporter in sex-obsessed Sigmund Freud, a daily user of the drug, who wrote a popular cocaine treatise “On Coca” in 1884.

Coca leaf has certainly been an object of controversy for centuries, and has been alternately praised and condemned. Used in its whole form, coca leaf is a fundamentally benign herbal material which provides vitamin A, riboflavin, iron and calcium, and may also help to regulate blood glucose, thus enhancing metabolism and helping to reduce the tendency toward adult onset diabetes and obesity. Coca leaf is also rich in beneficial antioxidants, including ones that help to protect the integrity of blood vessels. But its concentrated, isolated alkaloid cocaine is a menacing superstar on the global illicit drug stage, and has taken the lives of thousands. This gives testimony to the fact that tinkering with nature beyond a certain point can prove disastrous. Coca tea is good for you, but cocaine can kill you. Today annual South American cocaine production is estimated to exceed one million pounds, much of which goes right up the noses of US citizens.

Coca leaf and its stimulating alkaloid’s full maturation to everyday mainstream consumption by the American public began seemingly humbly, when unknown Atlanta pharmacist Asa Griggs Chandler purchased a patent in 1891 for a formula that would become known as Coca Cola. For twenty-five years, the Coca Cola Company of Atlanta’s best-selling soda provided a combined jolt of cocaine from coca leaf and a blast of caffeine from kola nut to the masses, and became popular as a stimulant par excellence. Coca Cola was enthusiastically embraced by physicians and as a health drink, and to this day people reach for the soda to quell an uneasy stomach and to relieve hangovers.

In 1906, the Coca Cola Company removed the cocaine from its soda, as government policy against the drug clearly spelled the coming end of its widespread legal use. This, as it turned out, was a prudent decision. In 1922 cocaine became classified in the US as a narcotic, a designation for which there is no scientific validity. Narcotics induce stupor, drowsiness and lethargy. Cocaine, a stimulant alkaloid, produces exactly the opposite effects. Despite the totally inaccurate classification, cocaine had gone from being a legal consumer product to an illicit drug overnight.

The elimination of cocaine was by no means the end of the Coca Cola Company’s long affair with coca leaf. Today the Coca Cola company remains the sole user of coca leaf extract (sans the cocaine) in the United States. Coca Cola owes its unique flavor to nutritious coca leaf extract supplied to the beverage giant by the Stepan Company of Maywood, New Jersey, the nation’s sole legal processor of coca leaf. In Peru you can walk into a restaurant or approach a roadside stand and enjoy coca leaf, with its naturally occurring small amounts of invigorating cocaine, without problem. But for those in the US who want legal access to the health-imbuing properties of coca leaf, Coca Cola is the only game in town.

We see clearly in the history of coca leaf that a plant can be healthful in its whole form, and yet an isolated compound from the same plant can be quite toxic. Cocaine, a profoundly potent drug, has ruined many lives. And yet hundreds of millions of people daily enjoy coca leaf extract in a popular beverage.

By Chris Kilham, The Medicine Hunter, for Fox News Health