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Lab-grown coffee and creative colorants

by Arminda Downey-Mavromatis
December 5, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 44


Bioreactor brew

Cell cultures on the right and coffee powder on the left
Credit: VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Not your average joe: Coffee cell cultures (right) grown in a bioreactor could make coffee more sustainable.

People in Finland drink a lot of coffee. Finns consume on average 12 kg of coffee per person per year, while Americans’ average consumption is 4.4 kg each year. But the harsh Finnish climate makes it difficult to grow the beloved beverage close to consumers. Instead, coffee-growing countries like Costa Rica and Kenya export their crop to Finland and the rest of the world. But as environmental changes threaten coffee-growing regions and the global community becomes more concerned with sustainability, new technologies are popping up in places like Finland, where interest is brewing in bioreactor-grown coffee.

A research team at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland began making bioreactor coffee as a test case, not because of their home country’s thirst for the drink. The team found success with other cellular agriculture projects, such as egg white protein, but wanted to work on “a recognizable product everybody can relate to,” team lead Heiko Rischer tells Newscripts. The cell culture can come from any part of the coffee plant, as opposed to regular brewing, which traditionally requires coffee beans. The cells are first grown in nutrient media and then transferred to bioreactors. The team harvests the biomass, which Rischer describes as “smoothie type of stuff.” Once filtered and dried, the resulting product is a whitish powder, which is then roasted.

The powder can then be brewed and filtered. The result? “A hundred percent coffee,” says Rischer.

Still, the process by which the coffee was cultivated makes it a “novel food” to regulatory authorities in Europe, and this designation complicated the taste-testing process. A trained sensory panel was permitted to taste, but not swallow, the coffee. Chemical analysis confirmed the presence of coffee’s components, including critical caffeine. Flavor compounds were detected using gas chromatography-olfactometry. The team hopes to publish a life cycle analysis soon to see exactly how sustainable their product is.


Suspect sprinkles

Multicolored sprinkles spilling out of a jar.
Credit: Shutterstock
Verboten vermillion: How sprinkles are colored matters, as one British baker learned the hard way.

Not all sprinkles are created equal. And depending on where you’re baking, some may be illegal. That’s what a baker in England discovered when his cookies were banned by West Yorkshire Trading Standards. The red sprinkles used in Get Baked’s cookies contained the food dye erythrosine, or E127, as it’s known in much of Europe. It is not permitted for use in the UK, except in cocktail and candied cherries.

In the US, however, E127 is known by a different name—FD&C Red #3—and is permitted in food products.

There’s plenty of nuance in food-dye rules, explains Winston Boyd, vice president of technology and manufacturing at FoodRGB, a natural food-color manufacturer. In the US, food colorants synthesized from chemical feedstocks are certified by the Food and Drug Administration and receive the FD&C label, whereas colorants produced from things such as fruit juices are considered natural colorants and are exempt from that certification. FD&C Red #3 is permitted in the US, but Red #2 is not. Both are permitted in Canada.

Differences in food additive regulations between countries can be a headache for manufacturers, but using natural dyes isn’t necessarily the pain relief they seek. Some natural dyes can be unstable over a range of time and conditions, and this instability could challenge their shelf life. “The synthetic colorants are really chemically quite stable compounds,” Boyd tells Newscripts. “They’re very predictable, and compared to natural colors, they’re cheap as dirt.”

And consumers have strong preferences for certain colors. Take Trix cereal, which briefly switched the colorants for its puffed balls to dyes from radishes, purple carrots, and turmeric. Customer complaints eventually led parent company General Mills to relaunch its traditional cereal with its original, synthetic bright reds, blues, and greens.

With the overall consumer push toward clean labels, the extra cost and consideration may be worth a company’s while. Taste-wise, the Newscripts gang isn’t sure if we would be able to tell the difference, but we would be glad to sample some cupcakes to find out.

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