The Real Deal on Guarana by Toby Amidor in Food News, April 6, 2010
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Guarana is a new caffeine alternative that’s all the rage in energy drinks these days. A few weeks ago, a pregnant client told me she was drinking guarana-flavored soda instead of coffee because she thought it was a healthier pick. Thing is, guarana actually contains much more caffeine than coffee. The takeaway: Guarana isn’t always safe. Read up on the facts and find out if it’s right for you.
What Is Guarana?
Also known by the names guarana gum, guarana seed, zoom and Brazilian cocoa, guarana (pronounced GWAR-ah-na) is a tropical plant that bears small red fruit. To say that guarana contains a “little bit of caffeine” is an understatement. In fact, guarana has three to five times more caffeine in it than other plants (and twice what you get from coffee). Because it’s often used an appetite suppressant, you might find guarana plugged as a “diet aid.” Some folks also rely on it as a performance-enhancing supplement and to enhance sexual performance. In Brazil, you’ll find specialty sodas that are flavored — and super caffeinated — with guarana.
First things first, many young people (and some young-at-heart older folks) are turning more and more to heavily caffeinated beverages to pep themselves up for late-night drinking and partying — often these caffeinated drinks serve as alcohol mixers. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has warned that this can be very dangerous — if you’re buzzed on caffeine but intoxicated, you may falsely believe you’re sober enough to drive, a problem that leads to accidents and even death.
As for guarana specifically, the plant, its extract and berries haven’t been tested by the FDA to determine their safety, effectiveness or purity. There is no regulated standard in place for manufacturers, so you’ll find varying amounts of guarana used in supplements and beverages. In many cases, the details may not be listed on the label. In some instances, researchers have found supplements contaminated with toxic metals or other drugs that weren’t listed on the label.
If you fall into any of the following categories, you should speak to a doctor or registered dietitian before you try guarana:
- Heart problem or high blood pressure
- Kidney disease
- An overactive thyroid
- Anxiety or nervous disorder
- Pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant in the near future
- Nursing a child
Symptoms of getting too much guarana aren’t that well studied, but some complications might include painful urination, tremors, vomiting and abdominal spasms. (Sounds fun, right?) Irregular heartbeats and chest pain have also been reported after consuming some guarana. Other less-serious side effects include heartburn, upset stomach, irritability, difficulty sleeping, headaches and loss of appetite.
As if that’s not enough, the plant also interacts with various medications such as ephedrine, which can be life-threatening. If you are taking any other herbal supplement or medication, it’s important to talk to your doctor first.
The Bottom Line
We usually like to give the good and bad on these fad foods and advise that if you must have it, only try it in moderation. This one, however, I strongly suggest you skip. Over-caffeinating yourself with energy drinks or supplements is not the way to go — there are just too many warnings and questions. Why risk your health?
TELL US: Have you tried guarana?