Food fraud is a hot topic lately: The Italian Mafia is cashing in on fake extra-virgin olive oil, shredded cheese manufacturers are using wood pulp as a cheap filler, and restaurants are passing off cheap fish as lobster. Here's another concern to add to the list: counterfeit coffee beans.
Some coffee producers knowingly mislabel their beans, passing off cheaper Robusta beans as pricier, more desirable Arabica — but as the Washington Post reports, scientists have come up with a new way to sniff out coffee bean fraud. A study published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Food Chemistry details a process Italian researchers have developed for identifying "the percentage of each species of bean in blends," meaning they can identify whether your pricey single-origin coffee is being bulked up with cheap Robusta beans.
The process involves mixing coffee beans with formic acid and then passing the mixture through a high-performance liquid chromatography instrument; the chemists say it's faster, easier, and cheaper than other methods of identifying coffee bean species.
Beyond one kind of bean being subbed for another, a 2014 report from the National Chemical Society found that ground coffee could contain all sorts of filler ingredients, from barley to wheat. (Scientists have developed high-tech methods of testing for that too, and it involves DNA testing.) While it's not currently known just how widespread coffee fraud is — or isn't — it's a problem that only seems destined to get worse going forward: The global demand for the precious caffeinated beverage is rising (see: Starbucks' major push into emerging coffee market China) and climate change is taking a toll on production, leading to speculation that a global coffee shortage could be coming.
Worried about illegitimate beans in your pantry? The Post notes that "The team hasn’t patented its method, so anyone with a few thousand bucks, a computer and some lab goggles can try and use the process to hunt out counterfeit beans in the cupboard." Consider your weekend plans made.