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Peru Coca Leaf Fuels Energy Drink Demand

LIMA, Peru (Reuters) - The sacred coca leaf that the Andean peoples of South America have used for thousands of years for its energizing qualities is a marvelous ingredient for yogurt maker Maria Quiroz.

She started making yogurt with coca -- the raw material for cocaine -- several months ago to sell at Lima's organic market, and the strong demand for her product has allowed her to think about opening a bigger business.

Quiroz's efforts are part of a new trend in Peru to use the ancient leaf in energy drinks and health foods, opening up a wider legal market that coca growers argue will direct coca production away from the drugs trade.

Peru is the world's No. 2 cocaine producer after Colombia.

"We've demonized coca in Peru for so long and we've forgotten its health value and how full of proteins and minerals it is," said Quiroz at her market stand.

Two new coca drinks have been launched this year in Peru, with plans for export, while lawmakers hope to pass legislation to formalize coca production and allow the green leaf to be promoted much more widely as a health product.

Moves to develop a legal market are fiercely supported by thousands of coca growers, who arrived in Lima this week after marching from the central jungle to protest large-scale, U.S.-backed crop eradication. They say only half their production goes to the drugs traffickers, not the 90 percent the government claims.

Experts say that coca has been internationally associated with drugs since a 1912 opium convention in The Hague, which formally established that cocaine could be produced by separating one of the alkaloids contained in coca.


Nevertheless, coca contains more calcium than milk and more proteins than meat, according to medical studies. It is used by thousands of Indians to increase stamina, stave off hunger and is drunk traditionally by Peruvians in tea to aid digestion and as a remedy against altitude sickness.

In a new study, the government says Peruvian demand for legal coca products is three times larger than the government coca agency ENACO supplies.

With U.S. funding, Peru is on the warpath against illegal coca production and aims to squeeze the cocaine supply chain to U.S and European markets. State anti-drugs agency DEVIDA said the amount of land devoted to growing coca was slashed in 2003 to its lowest level in 20 years. It aims to replace many more acres of coca with crops like coffee and fruit this year.

But some politicians want to see some coca-growing areas protected. Lawmaker Adolfo Latorre has submitted a bill to Congress to regulate legal coca production more efficiently.

"Coca as a leaf is not a drug and we need to realize that," said Latorre. He said his bill would introduce a permit system whereby registered coca growers could grow set quotas of coca for legal consumption every year.


Lima-based Kokka Royal Food, set up by Spanish and Peruvian investors with an initial investment of $300,000, is one of two companies trying to make the most of legal coca.

In February, the company began selling its iced tea called K-Drink in Peru, giving away free samples in supermarkets, and calling it "divine energy."

"It's a completely natural stimulant that is not addictive," said company Director Eduardo Mazzini.

The company, which has sold 75,000 bottles of K-Drink between February and mid-April, hopes to turn a profit by the end of 2005, according to Kokka's General Manager Cristina Tudela.

"We also aim to export to The Netherlands, Italy, Spain," said Tudela.

Coca-Cola already uses a coca extract in its formula, although the cocaine-producing alkaloid was removed from the drink more than 100 years ago.

K-Drink will try to leave that alkaloid in because the company says it is part of the drink's make-up. "We know we will come up against international laws that prohibit exporting the alkaloid, be we hope to be treated as an exception," Tudela said, giving no details why it should be.

Vortex energy drink is another new Peruvian coca beverage, competing with energy drinks such as Austria's Red Bull. Aimed at 18- to 30-year-olds, it has proved a hit with party-goers.

"Our sales are 10 times above what we expected so far," said Vortex Commercial Manager Christian Chang. "We've also signed our first option agreement with a firm in Europe and we received an order to send a trial to Central America."

Chang said Vortex's coca ingredient gave it an edge over other energy drinks because of its natural qualities.

"Coca supplies energy via carbohydrates, amino acids and fatty acids, something that other energy drinks don't have," he said. Vortex will remove coca's cocaine-producing alkaloid for export, Chang said.


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