Rest Easy, There Are Now Tests to Make Sure Your Cup of Coffee Isn't Loaded with Dirt

Coffee purists might be surprised at the news of how impure their coffee might be these days with reports that coffee frequently contains dirt, bean husks, soybeans, corn, wheat, brown sugar, barley, sticks and twigs -- some of which could potentially cause allergic reactions. According to Time, Grist, USA Today and more, there’s dirt lurking somewhere in your coffee and it’s often left there as a way to bulk up the weight of your coffee bag, much in the way that poultry producers pump water in the chicken to get more bang for the buck. 


Unfortunately the headlines are largely exaggerated and stem from a new study to test coffee for counterfeit substances. Brazilian researchers contend that dwindling coffee supplies and rising coffee prices could mean more coffee will be mixed in with non-coffee substances. They report Brazil’s January drought could put production of Brazilian coffee at 45 million pounds, instead of the typical 55 million. By the year 2080, Arabica coffee grown in Sudan and Kenya could be completely wiped out.

To address the coffee adulteration, the researchers developed a new liquid chromatography technique to test for counterfeit coffee substances. The researchers, however, tested ground roasted coffee available commercially for consumers in Brazil and not the United States — an important distinction which may save you from imbibing a dirt-coffee combo. 

Tests such as this new one are not entirely new as lead researcher Dr. Suzana Lucy Nixdorf of Brazil’s State University of Londrina also developed an earlier study with a similar technique in 2009. The test does help with testing for impurities by creating a “characteristic fingerprint” of coffee’s carbohydrates, and later identify anything else without that unique fingerprint as a non-coffee substances e.g. dirt, husks, soybeans, barley, twigs, etc.

"With our test, it is now possible to know with 95 percent accuracy if coffee is pure or has been tampered with,” said Nixdorf in a statement. 

In the U.S. food companies  are required to make sure their products are safe and properly labeled. This physical inspection of the beans allows inspectors to determine if any insects, excrement or other potentially harmful materials are present. If there is a filler in coffee, it needs to be on the label. Of course, it’s up to the manufacturer to correctly identify fillers. The likelihood they’d ever label coffee as having “soybeans”or “dirt” is, to say the least, not very high. To date, this year the FDA has yet to refuse an import of Brazilian coffee for adulteration.

According to a study published in the Journal of Food Science, coffee is one of the most adulterated products, alongside honey and olive oil. In analyzing a data set of roughly 1,300 food fraud instances, the researchers found coffee and orange juice accounted for 3 percent of food fraud reports in scholarly records. 

When news was released that there could be dirt in your coffee, the National Coffee Association issued a statement:

The ACS’ promotion of the study  implies a looming problem with coffee adulteration, which is not the case. The definitive  database for food adulteration tracking – the US Pharmacopeial Convention’s Food Fraud Database – contains no reports of current coffee adulteration. Assertions by the ACS of  substances being added to coffee are not supported by the facts, and using them to promote a research paper runs counter to essential principles of scientific inquiry.

Joe DeRupo, a spokesperson for the NCA, told AlterNet that coffee being mixed in with dirt "could never happen here because of all the different checks that coffee goes through."

The study’s finding were presented at the 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) earlier this month.

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