There’s So Much More to This Gluten-Free Flour Than Delicious Pastries

Milling dried coffee cherries could be a boon for rural Latin American communities.
(Photo: Facebook)
Jul 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Highbrow coffee drinkers know all about shade-grown, bird-friendly, and direct trade coffee. But being a conscientious caffeine consumer isn’t necessarily enough, as it turns out that coffee pods, disposable paper cups, and all those grounds you’re left with after making cold brew aren’t even the worst waste offenders when it comes to our global habit.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the process of separating the seeds of the coffee cherry, or the beans, from the fruit generates enormous volumes of pulp, and the waste finds its way into local water sources, causing profound environmental impacts. Innovators have tried to make use of the 17 billion pounds of coffee cherries thrown away every year, including turning them into biofuels or building materials.

“None of them has really worked to the point of success that you’d call a solution for the industry,” said Andrew Fedak. He and his partner, Dan Belliveau, former director of technical services at Starbucks, are betting on a product they think could cut coffee-pulp waste in half—and lead to both delicious gluten-free pastries and significant economic opportunities in coffee-growing communities.

CoffeeFlour is the chestnut-hued, gluten-free flour milled from dried cherry pulp. It has a bright, fruity flavor, five times more fiber than whole-grain wheat, and three times more protein than kale, according to Fedak and Belliveau. It has made a splashy debut, showing up on menus at the TED2015 Conference in Vancouver, Dan Barber’s wastED at Blue Hill in New York, and at Google cafés. This week, Brooklyn Roasting Company began selling CoffeeFlour-laced cookies, brownies, and coffee cake, and consumers can expect to start seeing CoffeeFlour in hot cereals, energy bars, and chocolate later this year. But Fedak and Belliveau don’t see it as just a flour alternative on the shelves at Whole Foods or as a post-SoulCycle snack. They’re trying to transform an industry.

“For us to succeed in getting billions of pounds of this ingredient out of the waste stream, it needs to be in the tortillas and the masa breads and the basic foodstuffs that support emerging economies consumed around the planet,” Fedak said. They want 30 to 40 percent of the product to remain at its source.

Still, not everyone thinks gluten-free flour made from coffee cherries is a great idea. One of the criticisms of CoffeeFlour is that it would divert coffee pulp from farmers who use it as fertilizer for their coffee plants. But Fedak said there’s more than enough to go around. “Our best estimate from the coffee growers is that less than 25 percent of all these cherries end up being used as fertilizer,” he said.

So, Why Should You Care? For every pound of coffee produced in the world, there’s an equivalent amount of wasted byproduct. In Latin America, where one-fifth of the world’s Arabica beans are grown, coffee processing plant discharges represent a major source of river pollution, and wastewater from wet milling of coffee can carry 30 to 40 times more pollutants than urban sewage, according to The Specialty Coffee Chronicle.

Climate change is wreaking havoc on an industry already infamous for exploiting its producers. In Central America, warmer temperatures have contributed to the spread of “coffee rust,” driving farmers to ruin and causing thousands to lose their jobs. Those who are able to work aren’t much better off. In Nicaragua, coffee picker Benjamin Fijado told The Guardian he made $3.50 for a day’s work. It costs $4 a day to feed his family of four.

By intercepting waste before it reaches the water supply, CoffeeFlour can help improve the local environment. But Fedak says it will also supply a new revenue stream and create jobs for the farmers, pickers, and mill workers in countries where the product is made, including Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, and Vietnam.

“The economic impact is about income diversification and job creation, but it’s also about job creation for the most vulnerable. It’s very difficult to find safe, stable jobs for females in these emerging economies,” Fedak said. At a small mill in Nicaragua last year, CoffeeFlour created 70 new jobs, 90 percent of which went to women. “We did the same thing in Vietnam. That’s scalable thousands of times over the planet.”

When they cut the first checks to farmers in Nicaragua for the previous year’s harvest, many saw amounts equal to nearly 25 percent of their annual income. “And don’t forget: this is for doing the exact same work. They don’t have to do anything different or change any of their practices,” Fedak added.

Fedak and Belliveau so strongly believe CoffeeFlour has the potential to address social, environmental, and economic problems, they’re calling it a “global impact food.”

“It started off as a cool idea, and now it’s become an obligation. We really have a opportunity here to do some really, really great things for the world. It’s way beyond a professional calling,” Fedak said.