shutterstock_644007898In 1773, the colonists  revolted against a heavy tax on tea imposed by King George III in form of the Boston Tea Party. This event would forever change the American drinking preference to coffee.

“Coffee – the favorite drink of the civilized world.”  – Thomas Jefferson

Before that, since the introduction of coffee to Europe in the 17th century, it has become one of the most popular drinks worldwide. But what coffee drinkers might not know is that coffee beans are produced in the territories known as the “Bean Belt” – the band around the Earth between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer known for cultivating different varieties of coffee.
Coffea canephora (known as ‘robusta’) and Coffea arabica are the two main forms of plants cultivated; the latter being the most highly regarded species. Coffee beans from the two varieties come from different areas of the Bean Belt and are often mixed together to create a coffee blend. Depending on the bio-geological features of the country of origin – soil, altitude, rainfall and sunshine – coffee beans develop different characteristics that create their unique flavors.

With manufacturers using country of origin as a statement to market and position their coffee blends and single bean products, it is becoming increasingly important for consumers to qualify origin claims.  Varying qualities of coffee beans and association with countries of origin might lead to mislabeling and fraudulent claims about the blends for economically-driven purposes.

There are currently no regulations or official institutions enforcing labeling requirements that might help consumers become more informed on the authenticity of the coffee product they are purchasing or consuming. The focus, rather, is primarily on nutritional fact labeling.

According to 1169/2011/EU “Provision of food information to consumers”, labeling for the place of provenance (Art.2.2 g, any place where a food is indicated to come from, in practice country where the green coffee was grown) or country of origin (the country where the coffee underwent its last substantial processing, roasting or soluble coffee manufacturing) are not required unless the failure to indicate them “(Art. 26.2.) might mislead the consumer as to the true country of origin or place of provenance of the food, in particular if the information accompanying the food or the label as a whole would otherwise imply that the food has a different country of origin or place of provenance.”

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However, following the increase in origin labeling regulations on other food and beverage products and supported by the greater awareness by the consumers on food frauds (e.g. dairy products or rice in Italy)   a change for labeling requirements other products  – like coffee  –  is a distinct possibility.

Luckily analytical science is coming to the rescue. From an analytical perspective, the official method to detect the presence of 16-O-methylcafestol content in roasted coffee, and then to be able to determine the percentage of Robusta and Arabica in blend of unknown composition is DIN 10779 (1999-02), which states high-performance liquid chromatography as the recognized method.

For the identification of origin and authenticity of food and beverage products, isotope analysis can be used. Isotope fingerprints – or unique chemical signatures carried by any samples – of hydrogen and oxygen have been reliably used for tracing the origin authenticity and product label claim verification of roasted coffee products.

Elemental analysis combined with isotope ratio mass spectrometry (used in the Thermo Scientific EA IsoLink IRMS System) – a technique measuring carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen isotope fingerprints in samples – can unlock the information of sample origin and authenticity. For example, the hydrogen and oxygen isotope fingerprints in green coffee beans are primarily associated with local-regional rainfall, which changes according to the distance from the shoreline and with increasing altitude, as heavier isotopes are the first to be released from the clouds. This effect can be tracked in the oxygen and hydrogen isotopic fingerprints of plants and their fruits (e.g. coffee beans). Cultivation practices, soil processes and geological characteristics of the local area, altitude and proximity to the shoreline can also affect these fingerprints, as well as the carbon, nitrogen and sulfur isotope fingerprints.

By measuring the ratio in which hydrogen and oxygen isotopes are present in roasted coffee, the origin of sample can be defined. The same measurement can be carried out with green coffee, showing that the technique is reliable and the roasting process of the beans doesn’t affect the information contained in the isotope fingerprints. For more information, click here.