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Guarana: an overview

Posted: 15-07-2020 | Written by: Luna Sirius

It is difficult to trace back exactly when was the first time I had contact with the guarana plant. Back in Brazil, drinking guarana either in its more natural form or in its soda form is just like drinking coffee or tea, it is something that a lot of people do. I remember vividly seeing my aunt prepare some water and guarana powder drinks every morning as I grew up. Possibly my mum and dad did the same at different points. The fact that guarana is so wide-spread, however, never made me even question where exactly guarana comes from or why exactly it is so popular. It is only when I began to do some research that I started to realize the depths of guarana history and pharmaceutical potential. 

The meaning of the word

Guarana, comes from the word ' waraná (PT) ' which means that which contains the spiritual principle of the 'wará', the explanation or the starting point of all knowledge. The indigenous community Sateré-Mawé, from which the word comes from, sees in guarana the beginning of a new social contract (PT) . Through the guarana myth, they pass on the tradition in which listening and mutual understanding is at the core of good governance. A drink made out of guarana called 'çapô' is essential during any important community discussion.

The origins of the plant

The origins of the guarana plant are controversial, although there are reasons to believe that the natural habitat of the plant is limited to the region of the Maués-Açu river basin, which coincides with the territory of the Sateré-Mawé. The plant, nevertheless, can also be found in other parts of Brazil and in other countries such as Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. It is thought that the plants commonly found in Venezuela are of a different variety, which was mostly used by a different indigenous community called Baré. Nowadays, Brazil is the biggest guarana producer, with the states of Amazonas and Bahia occupying the first rank in terms of amount of guarana being produced per year. The Sateré-Mawé, who were the first to cultivate the plant, hold a prominent role in the guarana production. Currently, they are one of the biggest exporters of guarana to the European continent. 
 
Although guarana’s existence and usage has been known by the Sateré-Mawé since immemorial times, the first European mentions to the plant come from the writings of the missionary João Felipe Bettendorf, who in 1669 noted the stimulating effect of the plant on the Sateré-Mawé community. Up until 1937, guarana was simply known as Paullinia cupana, named after the German botanist and physician Franz Paullini. It was Adolpho Ducke, however, who in 1937 demonstrated that guarana could in fact be separated into two different varieties: the Paullinia cupana of the typica variety, found in the upper Rio Negro, and the Paullinia cupana of the sorbillis variety, found in the Maués region. It is the sorbillis variety that is typically commercialized and most thoroughly studied. 

How the plants look like

In its wild variety, the guarana plants tend to grow as a vine, forming a liana that can reach up to 10 meters in length. When domesticated, however, the guarana plant grows as a shrub, which can reach anything between 2 to 3 meters. The Sateré-Mawé were the first to domesticate the plant. The leaves of the plant are made up of five leaflets, all of an intense green colour, and the flowers, which are all grouped around the stem, can be either white or white yellow. The fruits grow in clusters of reddish or yellow colour and when ripe their seeds resemble the eyes of a child. This resemblance is what probably led to the creation of one of the Sateré-Mawé’s myths, in which the guarana plant is said to have originated from the right eye of Oniawasap’i’s son. 

Different forms of guarana

Traditionally, guarana is consumed either as a stick (‘pão de waraná’) or as a beverage called ‘çapô’, which is made by grating the guarana stick and dissolving the powder in water. When sold at stores, guarana can usually be found in either of these forms (stick or powder). When commercialized at a larger scale, guarana can also be found as ‘rama’ (roasted guarana grain) or in its syrup form, mostly used by soda companies to make the beverage. 

Medicinal use

Indigenous communities in the American continent have known of the benefits or the guarana since time immemorial. Before the European invasion to the continent, guarana was exchanged between communities from all over the continent, in regions that now comprise Brazil and parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. For them, guarana was primarily a source of energy and a drying agent used to treat chronic diarrhea. Other uses also included guarana as a pain-reliever and a tonic to treat hypertension, fever, migraine, neuralgia and prevent arteriosclerosis, amongst many others. 
 
Some of the first European accounts of the health benefits of guarana started to appear in the 19th century. In 1817, the first description of guarana as medicine emerged in Paris via Cadet de Gassicourt, who promoted guarana as a medicine, antipyretic, and as an aphrodisiac. During the 1940s, the first scientific studies regarding the health benefits of guarana started to emerge in Europe. Currently, it is known that guarana is an excellent source of caffeine. The dried or roasted guarana seeds have been shown to have 2.5 to 6% caffeine content, which is 2 to 5 times higher than that of Arabica coffee seeds. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the tannin present in guarana slows down the release of the caffeine also found in the plant so that its effects last longer than the caffeine present in other plants. 
 
Apart from the stimulant effect that the caffeine gives to guarana, the plant has also been suggested to have antioxidative properties, and to offer a boost when it comes to memory, learning and performance in physical activities. Furthermore, the plant may also help with weight loss, reduce the risk of heart disease and might possibly be an antitumor agent. On the cosmetic front, guarana might also have anti-wrinkling properties and might prevent the formation of bacterial dental plaque

Guarana’s chemistry

Friedlieb Ferdinand Runge was the first to isolate the caffeine present in guarana in the year of 1820. Shortly after, in 1826, Theodor Martius conducted the first chemical analysis of the plant and instead of caffeine, found what he called guaranine. Years later, however, it was shown that what he called guaranine was nothing but an impure version of caffeine, probably associated with tannins. Other chemicals found in the guarana plant include adenine, allantoin, alpha-copaene, anethole, carvacrol, caryophyllene, catechins, catechutannic acid, choline, dimethylbenzene, dimethylpropylphenol, estragole, glucose, guanine, hypoxanthine, limonene, mucilage, nicotinic acid, proanthocyanidins, protein, resin, salicylic acid, starch, sucrose, tannic acid, tannins, theobromine, theophylline, timbonine, and xanthine. 

Warnings 

In principle, guarana is a safe substance. Nevertheless, if taken at very high doses or at a dose equivalent to around 100 grams of guarana seeds at once, it may be fatal. Having such a high dose of guarana, nevertheless, is practically impossible. Even a very strong guarana-based syrup won't contain more than 400 milligrams of caffeine (the substance that at high doses could lead to a fatal outcome). In general, one can think of guarana as a very potent version of coffee. As such, the side-effects of both are more or less the same.

Since coming to Europe, guarana played a less and less important role in my life. Now, after having done some more research about its history and its benefits I might just as well consider getting back to this long running tradition.  
 

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