Guarana, also known as Brazilian cocoa, is an Amazonian climbing plant whose fruits have long been used as a stimulant and energiser. It is a member of the maple family, Sapinidaceae, and is most commonly found growing across Brazil.
In its natural environment, Guarana can grow to over 12 meters long, and it produces small round fruit that resemble an eye, which has inspired many local legends. The name itself comes from the Sateré-Maué word for the plant, warana, which translates as “eye of the people”.
Guarana was introduced to European settlers in the 16th century and brought back by Spanish conquistadores, such as Oviedo and Hernández. Although Guarana has been available in Europe for all of these centuries, it was only in the last few years when it really caught on. Early reports of tribal and traditional use have now been scientifically verified, which led to a much broader acceptance.
Guarana’s popularity comes from its stimulating effects. The fruit of Guarana has a caffeine content that far outweighs that of coffee beans. Coffee beans have a caffeine content of 1-2%, whereas Guarana has a caffeine content of 4-8% - more than four times as much! Guarana also contains the alkaloids theophylline and theobromine, which set Guarana apart from other sources of caffeine.
The use of Guarana predates the “discovery” of Brazil, where the native Indian tribes have long used it to prepare various foods, drinks and medicines by making it into a paste. It was traditionally used as a stimulant and as an astringent to treat chronic diarrhoea; however, other traditional uses also include the treatment of pain, hypertension, fever, dysentery and migraines.
Guarana also plays a significant cultural role amongst the native Indian tribes of Brazil, such as the Tupi and Guarani. According to legend, Guarana was created when one of their deities killed a beloved village child. To appease the villagers, the deity took the left eye of the child and planted it in the rainforest, creating the wild variety of Guarana. The deity then took the right eye of the child and then planted it in the centre of the village, giving the villagers the domestic variant of Guarana.
Today, Guarana is used as a mainstream product ingredient in Brazil, and a worldwide export. It is used in a large number of food products, including the „national beverage“ of Brazil: Guarana Soda. However, although Guarana has been largely commercialised, it is viewed with a heritage status, and an important factor to the native Indian economy. As a result, 80% of the world’s commercial production of Guarana paste is done by the Brazilian tribes of the Amazon, and is controlled by FUNAI (the National Indian Foundation). This ensures that tribes are supported, and traditional, manual methods of harvest and production are maintained without compromising the villager’s way of life.