There Might Be Barley or Corn in Your Morning Coffee—and Climate Change Is to Blame

A new test promises to detect extenders and fillers in ground beans.

(Photo: Lasse Kristensen/Getty Images)

Aug 11, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

A cup of black coffee is just that—brewed beans and nothing else.

That may appear to be the case, but according to researchers from the American Chemical Society, there can be secrets hiding in the grounds that have nothing to do with reading your future—additives, fillers, and extenders are hiding in there too.

Tasseography is the word used for telling fortunes based on tea leaves or coffee grounds, and researchers at the State University of Londrina, in Brazil, are hoping to do the same for counterfeit coffee. The test they’re developing promises to detect common additives, which include wheat, corn, soybeans, brown sugar, acai seeds, barley, and rye—with 95 percent accuracy.

“After roasting and grinding the raw material, it becomes impossible to see any difference between grains of lower cost incorporated into the coffee, especially because of the dark color and oily texture of coffee,” Suzana Lucy Nixdorf, who is leading the research team, said in a statement.

As is too often the case with unsettling stuff happening to our food supply, the reason your preground coffee beans might have some barley mixed in has to do with climate change. There’s a terrible drought in Brazil, and the rust fungus, its spread helped by unseasonable weather, is devastating production in Central America.

“It is also obvious that increasing temperatures—as well as extreme weather events—have a very negative effect on production. Over the long term, you will definitely see coffee prices going up as a result of climate change,” Dr. Tim Schilling, executive director of the World Coffee Research program, told The Guardian in March. With lower yields and higher costs already becoming a reality, some produers are trying to make a little bit of beans go further. The Food Fraud Database lists plenty of documented instances of coffee being cut with other, lesser ingredients.

It would be far more difficult to pass off corn or brown sugar as coffee if you bought your beans whole, but despite the persistence of third-wave coffee joints in American cities, that’s just not the way that the world buys its coffee. According to the International Trade Centre’s Coffee Guide, 76 percent of the world’s coffee is both roasted and ground.

While a solution to the adulteration problem appears imminent (the research is slated to be presented this month at a meeting of the American Chemical Society), solving the problem that’s pushing producers to add cheaper, albeit safe, additives to coffee is still a long way off.