What Does the Real Kola Nut Do to the Body – Details
When Coca-Cola was launched in the 19th century, it was touted as a refreshingly cool alternative to tea and coffee. It contained mild doses of two exotic stimulants, South American coca leaves and African kola nuts.
The coca has long since been dropped in favor of conventional caffeine, and the kola flavor is now artificial, but kola nuts — unlike coca leaves — continue to have a number of legitimate uses. Like coffee, tea and yerba mate, it’s an enjoyable natural stimulant.
The kola nut is rich in caffeine, also found in coffee, tea, mate and — in small amounts — chocolate. The nuts actually have a higher caffeine content than coffee, which is why they’re often chewed in their native Africa as a stimulant. The caffeine helps combat fatigue, just as it does in coffee and tea, and helps promote alertness and good mental function. The nuts also contain substantial quantities of glucose and starch, which complement the infusion of mental freshness with a quick boost of physical energy. When food is scarce, locals often chew kola nuts to help suppress hunger pangs and food cravings.
Intriguingly, kola nuts are a potent source of another well-known stimulant: theobromine, the alkaloid compound that gives chocolate much of its allure. Although theobromine’s action is less potent than that of caffeine, it’s thought to contribute to alertness and also a sense of well-being. The heady combination of caffeine and theobromine, combined with the energy provided by the nut’s starches and glucose, may account for the mild sense of euphoria that’s usually reported after chewing the nuts.
Like any other caffeine-based stimulant, kola nuts can cause some physical side effects if consumed to excess. Jitteriness, headaches, irregular heartbeat and lack of sleep are all common examples, just as they are with coffee. The nuts also stimulate the production of gastric acid and might be problematic for people with ulcers. The nuts are known to have a mild diuretic effect, probably due to their theobromine content. By stimulating blood circulation, kola nuts are also thought — like coffee, and other stimulants — to speed the operation of oral analgesics such as aspirin.
Where to Find It
Unless you live near a very good ethnic market, you’re unlikely to find kola nuts in their natural state. Few mainstream soft drink manufacturers use true kola in their beverages anymore, though it can be found in a few upscale sodas. You’re more likely to find it in products such as energy bars, where its virtues as a stimulant can show to good advantage. Stores specializing in vitamins and supplements sometimes carry kola extract in capsule form, a liquid extract or “cola wine.”
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada’s Hospitality and Foodservice magazine.
He’s held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.