The kola nut is the fruit of the kola tree (Cola acuminata and Cola nitida), indigenous to West Africa. The trees, which reach heights of 40 to 60 feet, produce a star-shaped fruit. Each fruit contains between two and five kola nuts. About the size of a chestnut, this little fruit is packed with caffeine.
Kola nuts have a bitter taste when chewed fresh. When they’re dried, the taste becomes milder and they reportedly smell of nutmeg.
The kola nut is a cultural staple in many West African countries, prized for its effects as a central nervous system stimulant.
Throughout West Africa, every market, bus depot, and corner shop has small piles of kola nuts for sale. It’s a significant cash crop for poor rural farmers. Many people chew them daily for a dose of caffeine. Each nut contains more caffeine than two large cups of American coffee.
In the West (the United States and Europe), you are more likely to encounter kola nut extract than the fresh nut itself. Kola extract is a common food flavoring found in Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and now many popular energy drinks.
Kola nut has been listed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as generally safe for human consumption. Kola nut extract is classified as a natural food flavoring. The FDA has also approved kola extract as an inactive ingredient in certain pharmaceuticals.
In the past, kola extract was used in certain weight loss drugs and over-the-counter stimulants.
Kola nut extract is also marketed as an herbal supplement. These supplements are typically not monitored by the FDA, but they may include a warning about caffeine content. The American Herbal Products Association includes kola nut on a list of caffeine-containing substances that should not be used by pregnant or breastfeeding women or those under the age of 18.
Stories about the many health benefits of kola nut go back thousands of years. People have claimed that kola nut sweetens stale water, treats fatigue, and eases hunger pains. Most of these claims should be seen as folklore until proven otherwise.
While kola nut may have health benefits, they have yet to be scientifically researched and proven. Most of the benefits of kola nut are connected to its high caffeine content, which increases energy and reduces hunger.
Claims have also been made that it treats:
- skin diseases
- morning sickness
- intestinal diseases
- low sex drive
- coughs and asthma
- various eye problems
Americans have a long history of consuming kola-containing sodas without any adverse health effects. The kola nut is actually a seed taken from inside a fruit, so it’s not associated with tree nut allergies.
The side effects of kola nut and kola nut extract parallel the effects of a comparable dose of caffeine.
Caffeine has many effects on the body, including:
- stimulating your central nervous system, making you feel awake and energetic
- acting as a diuretic, helping your body expel extra salt and water through increased urination
- increasing the release of stomach acid, which can lead to heartburn and stomach upset
- interfering with your body’s ability to absorb calcium
- increasing your blood pressure
Most people can safely tolerate about 400 milligrams of caffeine per day. But caffeine can affect some people differently than others.
Energy drinks are not required to list the caffeine content of herbal ingredients, so an energy drink with kola nut extract may have much more caffeine than the label indicates. Too much caffeine can produce unwanted side effects, such as:
- jitteriness and shakiness
- rapid or abnormal heart rate
- dependency and withdrawal
Too much caffeine can cause health problems and is particularly dangerous when combined with alcohol. Combining caffeine with alcohol tricks you into thinking you’re less impaired than you actually are, which can lead to alcohol poisoning and drunk driving.
Kola nut and kola nut extract are generally considered safe by the FDA and other governing bodies around the world. Kola has been used as a food additive in the United States since the late 1800s and has caused little problems. But, be mindful of the caffeine content of kola supplements and kola-containing energy drinks. Too much caffeine can be dangerous and lead to unpleasant side effects.