clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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.

Sign up for the Sign up for the Eater newsletter

The freshest news from the food world every day