Alkaloids usually taste bitter – they are antigens with which plants protect themselves from being eaten. The substances strongly effect the nervous system of the organism trying to eat the plant. Medicine has made use of these effects – many alkaloids are components of traditional and modern medicines. Some alkaloids generate drugged conditions, as for example morphine or psilocybin. All alkaloids contain nitrogen.


The effective stimulant in coffee and black tea is caffeine, also an alkaloid and a nitrogen compound. Coffee was the drink of choice during the Enlightenment era: “The coffeehouse has dethroned the tavern” as the French historian Julius Michelet wrote praising it as the “sober drink that drives away the clouds of imagination”. Alcohol, by the way, is one of the very few substances that contains no nitrogen.


In medicine, morphine is used as a painkiller to treat serious illnesses. Yet morphine and the heroin derived from it are also sold illegally: 0.1 gram heroin costs about 10 Euros on the street. Illegal heroin is thus more expensive than gold. Drug addicts use heroin and morphine as a drug. The dose runs from 0.5 to 3 grams a day - depending on the addiction level.


This especially bitter-tasting alkaloid is extracted from the bark of the China bark tree that grows in the mountain forests of the Andes. The Indigenous peoples used the performance-enhancing as well as the fever-reducing effects of the substance and made the whites get acquainted with it. Quinine is also an important medicine against malaria. In small doses it is also an ingredient in various refreshing drinks, such as tonic water and bitter lemon. Some people like it bitter! In ultraviolet light the stuff fluoresces.