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INGREDIENT OF THE WEEK: GUARANA

SEPTEMBER 13, 2016

Guarana is a South American fruit that looks like suspiciously like an eyeball, with a fleshy white fruit that surrounds dark brown seeds. These seeds are about the size of coffee beans, but they contain more than twice as much caffeine. As a supplement, guarana is considered “generally recognized as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.Guarana is a plant named for the Guarani tribe in the Amazon, who used the seeds to brew a drink. Today, guarana seeds are still used as medicine. Guarana is actually one of the most popular forms of caffeine intake throughout South America. When you take a look at the health benefits and energy boost it provides, it’s not difficult to see why it’s growing in popularity. Guarana is used for weight loss, to enhance athletic performance, as a stimulant, and to reduce mental and physical fatigue. It is a frequent addition to energy and weightloss products. Some people also use guarana to treat low blood pressure and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and to prevent malaria and dysentery. It is also used to enhance sexual desire, to increase urine flow, and as an astringent.

Guarana contains caffeine. Caffeine works by stimulating the central nervous system (CNS), heart, and muscles. Guarana also contains theophylline and theobromine, which are chemicals similar to caffeine. A 17th century Jesuit missionary noted that guarana gave members of an Amazon tribe “so much energy, that when hunting, they could go from one day to the next without feeling hungry.” Brazilian soft drinks have included guarana since 1909, but it only became widely used in the United States recently, when energy drinks gained explosive popularity. Guarana contains molecules called tannins, which some say causes the caffeine in guarana to release slowly, producing a long-lasting energy plateau. (Tannins are found in some wines, where they bring a woody flavor.) The fact that guarana doesn’t readily dissolve in water also supposedly contributes to its long-lasting effects, but no one has conclusively shown that the body processes guarana-derived caffeine differently than the caffeine found in coffee beans or tea leaves.

The caffeine that humans seek in guarana serves a very different purpose in the wild: it’s a natural insecticide that keeps plant-eating bugs at bay. Still, hungry birds can digest the fleshy, caffeine-free fruit, but the caffeine-rich seeds pass unscathed through their digestive tracts, often landing in a new location, helping give rise to a new generation of guarana plants.