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Chewing over the truth about coca

An old legend which comes from the mythology of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon relates that chewing coca leaf builds a bridge towards the gods, a divine road where body and soul unite.

Photo Pixabay

Mónica del Pilar Uribe Marín


Although legends often run counter to science, there are scientists today who, supported by evidence-based research, admit that coca leaf is – contrary to the popular belief – not harmful.

This conclusion is supported by researchers such as James A. Duke, David Aulik and Timothy Plowman, who in 1975 presented a study at Harvard University about the alkaloid and its plant; and by Jesús M. Idrobo from Colombia, the only contemporary expert on coca leaf who mainly worked on studying its features. The theory was tentative 40 years ago, and it is only now, albeit with certain reservations, that the conclusion has become widely accepted.

It has very precise data in support: there are 283 species of coca in the world, of which 30 are from the forests and jungles of Colombia; however, of all of these varieties, only two possess the the necessary alkaloid; the subspecies known as “Colombian coca” or “Java coca”, and “Peruvian coca”, used in the international coca trade.

Photo: Pixabay

Both species, whose subsistence is based exclusively on its being cultivated by human beings, do not currently attract the attention of scientists; it is claimed that everything is known about them, a good deal of time having been invested on the plant, and they know the good that it can do as food or medicine. All the native species produce great quantities on fruit, consumed by the local wildlife.

The 1975 study indicates that in every 100g of coca, there are 305 calories, more than in 50 other vegetable products that form a typical part of the everyday Latinamerican diet.

In coca leaf, there is an average of 18.9g of protein, compared to an average of 11.4g in the other products; they contain 46.2g of carbohydrates, while the best performing of the other plants studied had only 37.1. It is also very high in fibre, which is of central importance for digestion, having 14.4g (the others containly 3.2g). When subjected to the process of ‘ashing’ – in which a particular substance is burned and weighed in order to determine its mineral content – coca leaf was found to have 9g, while the other samples had a average of only 2g.

It is just as rich with regard to other minerals: 1,540mg of calcium – the others, 99mg; 911 mg of phosphorus, the others, 270mg; 45.8mg of iron, the others, 9.6mg; it had 1.91mg of riboflavin, while the others had 0.18mg. Vitamin A, essential for the skin, eyes and all-round health of all the native peoples of the Andes, and the absence of which is the number one cause of tuberculosis fatalities, was found in coca leaf to the tune of 11,000 international units, while only 135 IU were found in the other plants tested.

These results were considered astounding. In addition to being rich in healthy minerals, when compared to the average of the 50 other plants analysed, coca leaf was lowest in oil and moisture. It contained 0.35mh of thiamine, while the others had 0.38mg; only 1.3mg of niacin compared to 2.2mg, and it had 1.4mg of ascorbic acid, but the others averaged at 13mg.

In their analysis of the plant, both Idrobo and the Harvard-published researchers claimed that consuming 100g of Bolivian coca leaf “would more than satisfy the Recommended Daily Allowance for reference man and woman of calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, vitamin B² and vitamin E”.

The Colombian expert explained that after consulting a variety of sources, his predecessors obtained further results by studying sun-dried coca leaves. They then found: 1.4mg of vitamin C; 0.35mg of vitamin B¹; 1.9g of vitamin B²; 43.5 international units of vitamin E; 5meg of iodine; 911mg of phosphorus, and so on with potassium, aluminium, barium, strontium, boron, manganese. Compared to beans, peas, chickpeas and broad-beans, coca leaf has a high content of fat, fibre, calcium, phosphorus, vitamins etc while at the same time it is low in calories, moisture, proteins and carbohydrates. “It is useful for everyone to be aware of this, especially those interested in losing weight”.

The dark side

The legend does not discuss the more famous and malign face of coca leaf; it contains, per 100g, between 0.25 and 2.21 percent of: methylcocaine, methyl-cocaine, benzoylecgonine, benzoyltropine, cinnamylcocaine, cocaine, hygrine, hygroline, cuscohygrine, methylecgonidine, nicotine, tropacocaine and Alpha and Beta truxilline.

By nature of being poisonous alkaloids, these last render the coca leaf undesirable as food products.

It is these elements that are responsible for addiction, and when the extract is consumed, it is known as ‘basuco’, or crack.

Neither did the originators of  the legend know that in certain places, before chewing, they take the leaves and treat them with lime or ashes in order to extract the basic alkaloids. In other words, they burn sea shells (in Guajira, Colombia), and, in Bolivia and Peru, plants like the quinoa are burned to make the ashes which can be used in the same way as quicklime is used in Guajira. In Cauca, Colombia, chunks of limestone are burned to make the quicklime which is known as ‘mambe’, which is put in the mouth and chewed until all the taste has been extracted; the remaining fibres are then spat out, or sometimes swallowed.

“The quicklime”, Idrobo explained, “helps to extract the essence of the cocaine. The alkaloids and their metabolites are disposed of in urine after half an hour, due to the processes of the digestive juices. The indigenous peoples do not become addicted, but rather feel a euphoria and don’t find work so tiring”.

Very little enters the bloodstream, it is only touched. That, however, is when the questions arise. If it is disposed of, where does the euphoria come from? It comes from another substance – which has not yet been isolated – which apparently produces an intense and quick oxygenation of the blood, and that is why one feels euphoria and breathes more easily. “But there’s never any dependency as there is with coffee, tobacco and chocolate, or with coca itself”.

Some South-American nations like Peru and Bolivia have accepted the theory, and have legalised the use of coca leaf for chewing purposes.

In Peru, there is there National Coca Company, Enaco,

which is state-owned and buys the leaf from farmers and then distributes it for legal use, not for illicit trade. “Traditional consumption of the leaf is allowed. but only in certain circumstances, and for this reason the crops are not fumigated”.

But there’s also another danger: that residues of pesticides are brought by villagers or the police themselves, or that many of the coca farmers in Chapare, Bolivia and in areas in which production is not continuous, use insecticides or do not clean the leaves, even after the harvests.

(Translated by Ambrose Phillips –

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