Saturday, June 5, 2010

Cocoa versus Cocaine Or, what a difference a letter can make!

Not too long ago, I helped a customer at the grocery store find some carob products. He was very adamant in his refusal to consume chocolate, and when I asked him what was wrong with chocolate, he looked at me with wide-eyed sincerity and said, "For one thing, cocoa...cocaine!"

"Oh," I said to him. "You know, they're not really the same. Chocolate is made from the cacao plant, and cocaine is made from the coca plant." The customer didn't appear to believe me, and he seemed just a little too firm in his beliefs for me to press the issue, but I would like to make it clear right here and now that chocolate and cocaine do not come from the same plant.

My self-righteous customer does not seem to be the only one holding this erroneous belief. Today, in fact, I read a news article stating that Bolivia was marketing an alternative to Coca-Cola made from the cocoa leaf. The article also stated that cocoa leaves are a major ingredient in cocaine. Now, the article cited a slightly longer article from the Irish Times as its source, so after I had spent a suitable amount of time scouring the Internet for articles about the difference between coca and cacao, and working myself into a fit of didactic rage, I looked for the article on the Irish Times website. I found it, and it said what I knew to be true--that coca, not cocoa, is the base ingredient for cocaine. So, I was relieved that the Irish Times wasn't leading people astray, but it was still too late. The damage had been done.

I must set the record straight. It's time for a botany lesson. Also a culinary lesson and a drug-manufacturing lesson--whee, you're in for a treat!

Let's do drugs first. Cocaine is made from the coca plant. Now let's have dessert. Chocolate is made from the cacao plant, also known as the cocoa plant. The terms are interchangeable, but some people prefer to use "cacao" for the beans before they have been processed.
The coca plant looks like this:

diagram of parts of the coca plant

The coca plant is a bush.
The cacao plant looks like this:


The cacao plant is a tree.
The coca plant is known to the scientific community as Erythroxylum coca. The cacao plant's scientific name is Theobroma cacao.
Cocaine is a naturally occurring alkaloid found in the coca leaf, and when extracted and purified, it becomes the addictive stimulant we all know and love. Chocolate is produced by drying and grinding the seeds of the cacao plant and mixing the powder with sugar, oils, and other good stuff, producing the addictive sweet we all know and love a lot more than cocaine.
For more information on coca, visit:
For more information on cacao, visit:

There. My desire for the truth has been satisfied. Researching that little lesson was a major effort. Now that you've been educated, please just do me one favor. Never look me in the eye and equate one of my favorite foods with an illegal drug.


Tariq said...

I'm proud of you for this post! You touched on one of my favorite topics in chemistry: natural products. My sister was confused about this a while back, and I gave her pretty much the same explanation.

Anyhow, chocolate does *not* contain cocaine. There's no way it would be allowed on the US market in such a large scale if it did. Coca leaves, which have a pretty small concentration of cocaine, are illegal in the US. The exception to this is decocainized leaves, which is analogous to decaffeinating coffee or tea (and thus still has a veeerrry small concentration of cocaine).

Hopefully that customer learns the facts of the matter, and knowledge is half the battle. GI-JOOOEEE!

Anonymous said...

You'll want to add a facebook button to your blog. I just bookmarked this article, although I had to complete it manually. Simply my $.02 :)

- Robson

Valerie said...

Thanks, Robson! That is actually an excellent suggestion, and I now have "share" links at the bottom of every post!

Anonymous said...

Thank You so much for this post. I was looking everywhere to find an intelligent and clear explanation to inform unequivocally of the difference once and for all. It is amazing how many people think they are from the same source - It IS THE popular belief and so many people come across to others as an authority on the subject .. You know the type. So glad to see a person who actually does the research AND shares it .. My hat is off to you .. with much all due respect.

Anonymous said...


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Valerie said...

This theme is custom and quite old! I don't think it's very compatible with some of the newer features of Blogger, but if you'd like to use it as inspiration for a template of your own, I'd be flattered.