Tuesday, May 25, 2010

INGREDIENTS - Guaraná

If not "flavor of the month", the small red fruit known as guaraná in its Amazonian homeland and as guarana with-no-accent in the rest of the world has become a buzzword for the 21st century. "Buzz" is indeed the appropriate word to use here, as guarana fruit contains more than twice the caffeine punch of the coffee bean. The percentage of caffeine, botanically known as guaranine when occurring in the guarana plant, in guarana is approximately 2-4.5% by weight, whereas in the coffee bean in ranges from 1-2%.

The guarana tree (Paullinia cupana), which is in the same botanical family as the maple, is native to the Amazon rain forest, and is particularly prevalent in the Brazilian portions of that forest. The fruit of this tree was harvested by native tribes of Indians long before the arrival of Columbus and was revered for its medicinal or magical properties. According to Indian legend, one day an evil deity killed a particularly well-loved child. A more benevolent god, seeing the grief caused by this senseless act, plucked the left eye of the dead child and planted it in the forest, where it sprouted into the wild guarana tree. Then it plucked the right eye of the child and planted it in the village, where it grew into the domestic guarana tree. The bright red fruit, with a black seed inside, is considered to resemble an eye, which is probably part of the origin of this legend.

Guarana extract, often in the form of a powder, has been used by Brazilian pharmacists and apothecaries for centuries as a stimulant which can be added to any type of syrup or concoction. Pure guarana powder can be purchased in pharmacies, healthfood stores and supermarkets throughout Brazil, and it is often added to fruit juice drinks to provide an extra energy boost. The phenomenal growth in the use of guarana as a stimulant in the 21st century, however, has not come from the Brazilian market, but from the worldwide market in energy drinks, most of which depend on guarana to provide at least part of that "energy" that is the mystique of these beverages. A quick look at the list of ingredients on the back of a can of Jolt, Burn, Starbucks Energy+Coffee, Monster, Mountain Dew MDX  and countless others will show guarana to be an ingredient. This has had an important impact on the growth of the export market for guarana extract and powder in Brazil, and has contributed to the globalization of the consumption of guarana, though most likely few who imbibe these energy drinks care what's providing their "buzz."

In Brazil, one of the most popular soft drink flavors is known as Guaraná. Although there is a small amount of guarana in these drinks (the caffeine levels are similar to those in Coca-Cola), they are not energy drinks. In the next posts on Flavors of Brazil, we'll discuss these soft drinks.

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