And Yes I'm All Lit Up Again: Is Coca Extract the Next Sugar Alternative?

By now, most Americans know that excess sugar consumption is dangerous. Unable or unwilling to quit the sweet stuff, we reach for alternative sweeteners hoping to find a sugar fix free from consequence. Unfortunately, as most who’ve tried Splenda will attest, that fix is often far from satisfying.

Could coca be the sugar stand-in health-conscious sugar-cravers have long clamored for?

Coca leaves are legal, popular and a part of South American culture. Elsewhere its reputation little as the organic base ingredient of cocaine precedes it. As a result, the leaves are illegal in most of the Western World unless the cocaine alkaloid has been removed.

Greg Aharonian, founder and chief scientist of KukaXoco, the world’s leading purveyor of coca leaf extract, is working with experts across the Americas to create new legal markets for the coca leaf and new opportunities for South American coca farmers. In partnership with Alejandro Camino, one of Peru’s leading anthropologists for Andean/Amazonian plants, they’ve launched the Museum of Coca and Cacao. Aharonian and his team envision the museum as an educational center for coca with the goal to drive tourism and support further economic growth and agricultural prosperity.

We asked Greg about what drew him to this work and how the eurocentric culinary world could benefit from a little coca.

BTRtoday: What inspired you to dedicate your work to finding and creating legal markets for the coca leaf?
Greg Aharonian: While the coca leaf is a popular and healthy part of most South American cultures and diets, the main coca countries (Colombia, Peru and Bolivia) have been plagued by crimes and killing associated with the illegal use of the leaf for decades. For the past 10 years, my colleagues and I have researched the many beneficial chemicals available in the coca leaf—similar to CBD in the marijuana plant—to develop new, legal products for global markets that can use decocainized leaves and their extracts, which are fully legal in the United States under DEA and FDA regulations.

Unfortunately, the world has failed to solve its cocaine trafficking issue and have resorted to simply bombing coca fields across Columbia, Peru and Bolivia or worse, using the herbicide glyphosate, which many consider to be a carcinogen. This destruction results in huge losses of legal profits for coca farmers, an enormous loss for the 100,000 plus families that survive by coca farming in Colombia and Peru.

The coca leaf is where the marijuana leaf was 20 years ago in many ways. Mostly illegal, with little industrialization. Now, 20 years later, marijuana is multi-billion dollar legal industry. It will not take 20 years for the coca leaf to achieve the same level of acceptance, simply due to the fact that it has more health benefits than marijuana when combined with other food and beverages.

BTRtoday: How, if at all, are the coca and cacao plant similar? How are they different?
GA: Despite their similar-sounding names, the coca and cacao plants have nothing in common. The coca plant is a medium-sized bush which is mostly leaves. Cacao plants are trees with huge seeds that are the cacao pods from which cacao powder and cacao butter are obtained. They are both tropical plants, why is why some of the best cacao in the world that’s prized in Europe for making chocolate and the best coca that’s prized in South America for delicious coca teas are grown in similar regions on either side of the Andes mountains.

Interestingly, though both plants are grown and used in the same region, no one discovered that extracts of the coca plant can be used to make unsweetened cacao less bitter, thus requiring less unhealthy sugar to be used. Some of the best cocas and cacaos come for the northern region of Bolivia, yet no one seems to have investigated their synergies.

The only use of the decocainized coca leaf to date has been by the Coca-Cola company. Extracts of the coca leaf were used in the original Coca-Cola (with the coca alkaloid), but over the decades Coca-Cola gradually reduced the amount of the coca leaf extract, and then eliminated it in Diet Coke sodas before then eliminating it in regular sugar versions.

BTRtoday: What are your goals in opening The Museum of Coca and Cacao? Why did you decide to dedicate a museum to both plants?
GA: Currently, we’re seeking international funding for a coca science/Industrialization institute in Lima, Peru, part of which will be the museum.

The institute will serve as an coca and cacao educational center across the Americas. Our goal is to gather a wide variety of coca and cacao samples for KukaXoco’s food engineers to analyze and determine which combinations of these varieties will be best for producing healthy, sugarless alternatives to the products of the giant chocolate companies and soda industry titans. Though of course, we would be glad to work with the giants. Anything to open the global markets to legal coca products.

The museum will also work to collect a largely scattered array of literature on coca, and translate it all into Spanish, English and Portuguese. One special goal will be to work with ENACO, a leader in building business-critical technology, to discover a variety of coca plant that does not produce the illegal coca alkaloids, just the flavorings that appear in the extracts that KukaXoco uses.

Beyond the fact that Colombia, Peru and Bolivia are beautiful countries with lovely people, others should visit them to learn more first-hand about the healthy and legal future of coca leaf products. No trip to South America is complete without a visit to Cusco, high up in the Andes, a historical treasure dating back centuries, with a rich and vibrant marketplace for coca products.

BTRtoday: People all over the world love chocolate, so they love cocoa. Do you think they could learn to love coca the same way?
GA:For too long, big chocolate companies and the soda industry titans have relied on sugar for taste and as an addictive tool to keep consumers coming back. It’s no secret that sugar has become an increasingly global health hazard—just look at the record-high global diabetes epidemic. For example, some years ago, medical researchers calculated that long-term consumption of soda beverages, half of which are cola sodas, causes over 170,000 deaths per year due to diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

So, yes, we believe that people will learn to love uses of the coca leaf and its extracts in their food and beverages, if the coca leaf can be used to make their foods and beverages more healthy by requiring less sugar while still tasting as good, if not better, than existing products. For example, we are prototyping a diet cola soda using coca leaf extracts that has much the pleasant taste of sugary colas, but without sugar.

And not just beverages can benefit from coca leaf extracts. We are also prototyping a chocolate spread that is just five percent fat and sugar, versus Nutella’s 90 percent fat and sugar, while our product has a richer, more chocolaty taste. Liquide coca leaf extract by itself makes a great sauce for sushi, and in powdered form is a great spice that much like cinnamon.

And who knows how many more beneficial uses of the coca leaf will be found once people start experimenting in their kitchens?