What's Inside Your Coffee Is Likely a Bit Grosser Than You Want to Know
Every coffee drinker has their own preference. For the purists, it's straight up "black, hold the sugar," while the lactose-inclined tend to enjoy a bit of milk with their morning brew. Then there are the ingredients none of us have a say in selecting. For starters, how about insects?
If you just spat a mouthful of joe back into your mug, that's fair enough. But the reality of the situation is that coffee is just one of many daily ingredients we ingest that likely contain a bit of bug. In fact, the FDA makes special allowances it calls “unavoidable defects" for all the insect fragments that end up in common foods like cornmeal, macaroni and peanut butter, as well as fruits and vegetables. How many insect fragments exactly?
Terro, an insect control company, calculated that answer last year using information provided by the FDA's "unavoidable defect" allowances for packaged food. They put together this handy chart published on Huffington Post to illustrate their findings, which included the average number of insect fragments you are likely to ingest after a year of drinking coffee daily. The amount was—prepare yourself—136,080. (This is bad news for coffee-loving vegetarians and vegans, who might consider straining their coffee through a very fine mesh.)
Although that number may disgust you, it shouldn't. First off, the figure represents minuscule fragments, not entire bugs. And then there's the stigma around eating insects. The fact is, the sooner we all start warming up to the idea of chowing down on a crunchy cricket or two, the better.
Unfortunately, this was not the only discovery made last year regarding unwanted additions to takeaway java.
Ice from three of the U.K.'s largest coffee chains was found to contain bacteria from feces. At least, that was the findings of an investigation conducted by a BBC One consumer series called "Watchdog," which used samples taken from Costa, Starbucks and Caffe Nero. Following tests, the investigation found fecal coliforms, a disease-causing pathogen, in seven out of 10 ice samples from Costa and in three out of 10 samples from Caffe Nero and Starbucks.
"The level of contamination of fecal bacteria concerns me a great deal," Tony Lewis, a member of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told "Watchdog" in an interview. He added that the disease-causing bacteria “should not be present at any level—never mind the significant numbers found."
Rob Kingsley, an expert in foodborne pathogens, added his own concerns about the findings in an interview with the Guardian. He said that the identification of coliforms in the samples means that “somewhere there has been some kind of breakdown in hygiene or the source of the water used for this ice.” In response, all three coffee chains made guarantees they would be addressing the issue and implementing measures to improve the cleanliness of their facilities.
Of course, this sort of response is expected at risk of losing business. But before we throw the baby out with the, er, ice water, it’s worth putting the results of this investigation into perspective. In an interview with the Guardian, Lewis admitted that the samples indicate the presence of a problem. But given the fact that there are thousands of coffee shops across the U.K. "at the end of the day the public should not panic about this,” he said. “You can’t generalize from the small sample size that we have got here."
Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University, further questioned the results of this investigation in an interview with Livescience. According to Chapman, detecting fecal coliform does not guarantee the presence of disease-causing bacteria, but is merely an "indicator" of potential harmful agents. In fact, he added, this bacteria is present in a number of other foods such as fruit and vegetables.
"Bacteria is everywhere, and if you look for it, you're going to find it," Chapman told Livescience. Instead, he added, investigators should have tested for the presence of actual harmful bacteria, such as E. coli.
It’s easy to be grossed out by a lot of what we unwittingly consume. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? As Chapman notes, the more important issue the BBC investigation raises is concern around the hygiene of coffee shops. If there is going to be any potential health risks posed by drinking dodgy iced coffee, it will be apparent from the cleanliness of the environment in which the drinks are sold.