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Thu, Dec 15, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Bolivian Indians put coca into cola

AP , BOGOTA

Fabiola Pinacue, a Nasa Indian woman, visits a stand advertising indigenous products, including ``Coca Sek'' cola, during an artisanal fair in Bogota last Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

A new soft drink made in Colombia may not be cola, but it's definitely coca.

A Nasa Indian company in southern Colombia has created a golden, carbonated drink made from coca leaf extract, and they plan to market it as an alternative to Coca-Cola.

Coca Sek goes on sale this week in parts of Colombia, but its makers say they probably won't be able to export to the US or most other countries due to rules blocking the entry of raw coca, the plant from which cocaine is refined.

"Six years ago we took on the job of trying to re-establish the good name of the coca leaf, which is a plant with enormous medicinal properties," said David Curtidor, a Nasa who heads the community company that produces the drink in the tiny southwestern town of Calderas.

The soda looks like apple cider, has a tea-like fragrance and tastes vaguely like a cross between 7-Up and ginger ale. The physical effect of drinking it -- even after several bottles -- is minimal.

"It's an energizing drink," Curtidor said. "It's like coffee since it is lightly stimulating."

Curtidor says the drink also is a political statement against transnational companies such as the Coca-Cola Co, which "symbolizes imperialist domination."

Coca-Cola spokeswoman Kirsten Watt, in Atlanta, Georgia, said such competitors are welcome.

"They are entitled to create beverages as they see fit," she said.

As for its own ingredients, Coca-Cola is tight-lipped.

"Cocaine has never been an ingredient," Watt said, though she declined to say whether cocaine-free coca extract is part of the drink's secret recipe, as has been widely reported.

"We just can't talk about the ingredients, the specific flavor composition," she said.

Coca Sek's makers say raw coca leaf extract is a key ingredient in their soda.

The company, which has 12 to 15 employees at a small bottling plant, does not have the funds needed to carry out tests to pinpoint how much naturally occurring cocaine alkaloid makes its way into the drink, Curtidor said.

But the company has done tests showing all alkaloids -- which include cocaine and other substances -- make up less than half of 1 percent of the drink.

"The traces that can remain are minimal because the formula we have is one with a very low level of cocaine," he said.

A group of Nasa Indians started selling coca tea, which is common in the Andes, to Colombian supermarkets several years ago. A year and a half ago, they began experimenting by adding ingredients and cooling the drink, Curtidor said.

They decided to call it Coca Sek, which in their Indian language means "Coca of the Sun."

Their firm, Empresa Colombiana de la Coca, aims to benefit small coca farmers, Curtidor said.

Similar drinks have appeared in Peru using a formula based on coca leaves. But such products are banned in most nations outside the Andean region.

Curtidor said his group has sold small amounts of coca tea in Canada, France and the US. But he said it would probably be impossible to export the soda on a larger scale due to import restrictions.

For now, Coca Sek remains a very local product.

"One of the first goals we have is to obtain a distribution truck," Curtidor said.

In the meantime, the company rents space on other companies' trucks.

The clear, small bottles with blue plastic caps went on display at a crafts fair in Bogota this month. The drink is scheduled to hit supermarkets starting tomorrow in the southern Colombian states of Cauca and Valle, and Curtidor said he hopes to eventually roll it out nationwide.

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