Can You Distinguish Fake Coffee From The Real Stuff?

Twigs. Wheat. Corn. As coffee prices balloon, one chemist has designed a test to track down the foul play lurking in your cup.

Wheat. Acai seeds. Corn. Soybeans. Barley. Triticale. Rye. Brown sugar. Rice. Twigs. Unscrupulous producers may be dumping such fillers into coffee, as drought and disease slash coffee yields. But a Brazilian scientist, Dr. Suzana Lucy Nixdorf, has developed the first chemical test to protect the purity of your morning cup of Joe.


Apparently, it’s a harder problem to regulate than one might think. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s coffee is sold to the consumer already roasted and ground, and existing quality checks rely on microscopes and taste tests–neither of which is reliable at discerning filler-based cheats.

Nixdorf has developed a test for enforcement agencies to spot impostor coffee, which she debuted at the American Chemical Society conference earlier this year. She’s essentially created a graphical thumbprint of what pure coffee should look like. (For the geeks in the audience, that thumbprint is based upon its carbohydrates, or sugars.) Then she can compare that baseline to other “coffees” with enough accuracy to identify the common additives. Even if you don’t quite understand the chemical intricacies at play, the graphics she’s developed tell the story. The fakes stand out like a sore thumb.

What’s particularly off-putting about these fillers isn’t just that they could adulterate the pure flavor of a cup of coffee. It’s that soy and wheat both appear on the FDA’s “Big 8” allergen list, a list that represents 90% of all food allergies in the United States, though Nixdorf is quick to downplay that point. “I haven’t done tests of allergens with people, which is the reason I am not putting emphasis in this point,” Nixdorf tells Co.Design. “In theory, if someone uses this kind of tampering, depending on the individual and quantity, they could have a problem, but I think we should study it before saying that is a problem.”

Nixdorf has discovered evidence of tampering in her own country–corn, acai, and husks specifically, making up as much as 17% of the mix in some samples she’s tested. She doubts such adulteration is a problem for U.S. markets, though. U.S. companies are more trustworthy and often acquire FDA-regulated whole bean coffee from overseas, she says. But if you want to be really, 100% sure you’re drinking the real deal, buy whole beans rather than ground coffee.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.