Erythroxylum spp. (‘coca’): a versatile and controversial medicinal plant

Abstract. Erythroxylum spp, known as ‘coca’ are an essential part of several cultures in Latin America since thousands of years. Coca is used in social interactions, as medicine, food and in magical-religious rituals. This article discuses some of the research done on the effects of coca that are most known in Europe, namely on altitude, hunger, cold and stamina. It shows that the controversy that arose around coca has had great influence on research into it’s medicinal activity. A large part of these studies focus only on a single isolated compound: cocaine. The Erythroxylum species has many more components and only very limited amounts of cocaine enter the body by traditional use of coca leave.


The four cultivated species of coca all have a different chemical composition. In most of the studies about the effects of the leave it is not mentioned which type of Erythroxylum is used. As a consequence there is still little known about the mechanisms of action of coca leave and even less about effects of different species and varieties.

Empirical information however, is abundant and can be a source of inspiration for further research. A multi-disciplinary research approach is desirable, because coca doesn’t let itself be explained one-sidedly, as is shown in this article. There is still a lot of research to be done.

M. van Kregten

Ned Tijds Fytoth 2016 (29) nr 3: pag 15-18.