coffee beans
August 12, 2014

New Test Could Determine If Your Coffee Is Full Of Unwanted Fillers

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

For the millions of coffee drinkers out there, the caffeinated beverage is a daily necessity. For the world at large, coffee is a multi-billion dollar a year business that depends on the unpredictability of the climate and weather.

This year the weather has not been kind to coffee growers and shortages are mounting, leading some companies to add fillers to the ground coffee. A group of scientists from State University of Londrina, Brazil, is developing a new, highly accurate test to quickly identify coffee with unwanted fillers before it reaches stores and restaurants.

The filler ingredients are not harmful. They do, however, make the coffee go farther and increase profits for producers in an uncertain time. The researchers will present their findings this week at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

Growing shortages in regions such as Brazil make a reliable test to detect counterfeit coffees more important than ever. Droughts and plant diseases have caused dramatic cut backs in coffee supplies. "With a lower supply of coffee in the market, prices rise, and that favors fraud because of the economic gain," research team leader Suzana Lucy Nixdorf, PhD from the State University of Londrina, said in a statement on Monday.

A 2012 study from the UK's Royal Botanic Gardens and the Environment predicted a 70 percent loss of the world's coffee supply by 2080 because of climate change conditions. More immediate issues are already causing shortages, however. For example, Brazil typically produces 55 million bags of coffee each year. After the severe drought this past January, however, the predicted amount will only reach 45 million bags in 2014. That represents 42 billion fewer cups of coffee around the world.

That kind of shortage provides a lot of temptation for producers to add fillers to their product. The team's new test might nip that temptation in the bud, however.

"With our test, it is now possible to know with 95 percent accuracy if coffee is pure or has been tampered with, either with corn, barley, wheat, soybeans, rice, beans, acai seed, brown sugar or starch syrup," Nixdorf said, adding that the challenge is "after roasting and grinding the raw material, it becomes impossible to see any difference between grains of lower cost incorporated into the coffee, especially because of the dark color and oily texture of coffee."

The team is continuing their research by analyzing several fillers that are considered impurities, not adulterants. Such impurities can be parts of the coffee plant itself that are not supposed to be part of the finished product, such as wood, twigs, sticks, parchment, husks, whole coffee berries or even clumps of earth. Identifying these substances is vital, Nixdorf said, because if a large amount is present, it was probably added on purpose.

Current tests require the scientists to check the coffee, making the tests subjective, not quantitative. Such tests involve examining the coffee under a microscope, or identifying the various additives by tasting the coffee. The new test, in contrast, uses liquid chromatography and statistical tools, giving a much closer, and unbiased, look at the coffee.

Chromatography, which is highly sensitive and selective, could allow researchers to develop a "characteristic fingerprint" using the carbohydrates in coffee. This would allow them to separate out the real coffee compounds from the unwanted fillers, which generate different levels of sugars than the natural ingredients.

Image 2 (below): A new test could detect unwanted fillers like wheat, corn and soybeans that might be lurking in your cup of coffee. Credit: American Chemical Society


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