Last year our family spent 10 months living in Bolivia where the altitude of the cities we stayed can reach as high as 4,500m above sea level (approx 15,000 ft).  Although we lived in Cochabamba we often traveled to the (de facto) capital La Paz which is approx 3,640 m (or 11,942 ft) above sea level; as you might have guessed the oxygen is a bit thin. For those who have no experience of high altitudes it means that when you walk, go up stairs or do any form of physical exertion there is not enough oxygen being passed into your body. The effects of altitude, otherwise known as Altitude sickness, can result in a variety of symptoms including being light headed, headaches, excessive tiredness, vomiting and in extreme cases it can be fatal. The airport international airport Bolivia has a oxygen room for those people adversely affected ed by altitude. Even the locals from Cochabamba (which isn’t exactly low…) complain about the altitude in La Paz.

The locals, who chew coca for a variety of reasons, advise you to drink mate (tea) of Coca to fix altitude sickness but our experience is that it takes a fair amount of tea and to tell you the truth my bladder cannot take it, between the altitude and then need to run to the toilet – it’s not a good combination. My partner a Homeopath suggested a Homoeopathic medicine for altitude, which is, surprise surprise, made from coca. It worked a treat and saved my bladder – phew!!!

One thing I love about my partner is that she loves to discover things and on one shopping trip in Bolivia she found Coca flour (locally know as Harina [flour] de Coca) which is used to make biscuits, lozenges and other treats. She started to have a spoon full every morning in a glass of water as a general tonic (cocoa is the panacea in this country) and she found it to be very effective. Antonietta encouraged me to do the same while in La Paz. Wow!! did my energy levels and ability to cope with the altitude change! I was able to walk, climb hills and get up the stairs at our hotel with greater ease and overall I felt much better.

Since then we undertook a bit of informal research and have learned that coca leaf is a traditional remedy for treating stomach and digestive ailments, alleviating affections of the larynx and vocal chords, preventing vertigo, regulating arterial pressure and the metabolism of carbohydrates, and even of improving sexual prowess. In 1794, Hipolito Unanue writes of “coqueros, 80 years of age and over, and yet capable of such prowess as young men in the prime of life would be proud of.” Coqueros is the Spanish word for people who grow coca – we can only assume they use it too.

A very important study published by Harvard University in 1975 (Duke, J., D. Aulik and T. Plowman, Nutritional Value of Coca) found the coca leaf has a large amount of nutrients and that each 100 grams of leaf coca contain Calcium 1749 (mg), Phosphor 637 (mg), Vitamin A 10000 (iu) which is enough to satisfy the nutritional needs of an adult for 24 hours.

According to research, the chemical composition of coca leaves is more complete and rich in calories, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibre, ash, minerals (calcium, phosphorous, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, ascorbic acid, etc.) and vitamins A, C and E than other food plants and infusions in common use such as coffee, tea, camomile, etc. Thanks to this research, it is nowadays recognized that the coca leaf contains more proteins (19.9 per cent) than meat (19.4 per cent) and far more calcium (2,191 per cent) than condensed milk, and that it is richer in vitamin B-1 (276 per cent) than fresh carrots.

According to research, the chemical composition of coca leaves is more complete and rich in calories, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fibre, ash, minerals (calcium, phosphorous, iron, potassium, magnesium, sodium, ascorbic acid, etc.) and vitamins A, C and E than other food plants and infusions in common use such as coffee, tea, chamomile, etc. Thanks to this research, it is nowadays recognized that the coca leaf contains more proteins (19.9 per cent) than meat (19.4 per cent) and far more calcium (2,191 per cent) than condensed milk, and that it is richer in vitamin B-1 (276 per cent) than fresh carrots.

COCA NUTRIENTS

Calories
Proteins
Fats
Carbohydrates
Calcium (mg)
Phosphor (mg)
Iron (mg)
Vitamin A (iu)
Vitamin B1 (mg)
Vitamin PP (mg)
Vitamin C (mg)
Vitamin B2 (mg)

305 (mg)
19.9
3.3
44.3
1749
637
26.8
10000
0.58
3.7
1.4
1.73


279 (mg)
11.4
7.9
37.9
99
270
3.6
35
0.58
2.2
13.0
0.18

Nutritionist Maritza Vera worked with patients in a Peruvian hospital to cure themselves of diverse diseases like chronic anemia, depression, osteoporosis and leukemia. They achieved this by adding “flour of coca” (toasted and ground coca leaf) to their foods. The coca contains “reserpina” that regulates the pressure and forms osteoblasts which helps patients with osteoporosis, according Maritza Vera.

The innocuous nature of traditional use of coca leaves and the benefits for human health were proven with scientific rigor by the most extensive study of coca ever done. This research was carried out between 1991 and 1995 by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  The concentration of cocaine alkaloid in the leaf, is very low, and therefore, ingested in natural form, it does not produce serious toxicity nor it generates dependency.

Since then we found a whole range of products including lozenges, some which are suitable for kids and some strictly for adults; toothpaste; hair products; rubbing creams, pastries, etc.  According to Wikipedia “Coca is used industrially in the cosmetics and food industries. A de-cocainized extract of coca leaf is reportedly one of the flavoring ingredients in Coca-Cola. Coca tea is produced industrially from coca leaves in South America by a number of companies, including Enaco S.A. (National Company of the Coca) a government enterprise in Peru. Coca leaves are also found in a brand of herbal liqueur called “Agwa de Bolivia” (grown in Bolivia and de-cocainized in Amsterdam, and a natural flavoring ingredient in Red Bull Cola, that was launched in March 2008.”

We were fortunate enough to visit the Coca Museum in La Paz where we talked at length with the curator and learned a little of the history of the coca plant and it’s use in traditional cultures. The coca history is as rich and varied as the properties of the plant and its uses. We look forward to presenting the taped  interview with the curator some time soon. We brought back a couple of bags of harina de coca for our own use and had no problems bringing it in through customs. We also brought some leaf back for tea – a few eyebrows were raised at the airport – but given that kilos of leaf are required to produce a small amount of cocaine we convinced quarantine we were safe to let onto the streets…

There is a lot of misinformation about coca in the community – we can say very clearly that coca is not cocaine. And from what we have seen so far Coca leaf has more to offer than we think and we should keep an open eyes in this area.  If you are interested in trying some of the coca products that are available drop us a line and we will point you in the right direction.