International Coffee Day: Would you like chicory with that?

nathan-dumlao-492751-unsplashToday is International Coffee Day and, not that anyone needed an extra reason to have a cup, the world is taking the opportunity to enjoy a fine cup of one of the world’s most popular drinks. But what if we told you that 170 years ago, enjoying a cup of joe often meant drinking a hot cup of roasted root vegetables instead?

Coffee adulteration has been common since at least the early 1800s, when laws were already in place banning the substitution of coffee with other mixtures¹. One of the most common adulterants was chicory, a plant whose roots are baked, roasted and ground for use as a food additive.

Chicory is still in use today as a legitimate additive for various foods, including coffee and beer. But in the 1800’s, many sellers advertised their mixtures as ‘pure coffee’, so much so that our earliest lab, known then as the Government Laboratory, was tasked with analysing samples from coffee mixtures to determine if they were in fact pure coffee.

At that time, the Victorians were a bit obsessed with coffee, England’s most popular drink until tea overtook it in 1853. “In 1840, the year Victoria married Prince Albert, Britain imported 28 million pounds of tea, but we imported more than twice as much coffee at 70 million pounds,” said the Telegraph in a report on an old ONS survey.

Because the market for coffee was so strong, there was financial incentive for adulterating coffee with other substances. Now called economically motivated adulteration, this coffee adulteration led the government to have botanists and chemists study the composition of various plants, and ultimately led to advances in methods of analysing the differences between coffee, chicory and other substances.

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Original analytical table in letter from John Lindley to John Wood, 1852.

In a letter dated 9 June 1852², English botanist John Lindley wrote to the Inland Revenue’s Chairman John Wood, “…we have carefully examined samples of Coffee and Chicory in different states and there is no difficulty in detecting their mixture however finely they may be ground if they be examined under a good microscope.” What follows are detailed descriptions of the cells of various substances, including chicory, to which Lindley pointed out, “When roasted Chicory in powder is dropped in mere water, cold, a pale amber yellow cloud will gradually form round each particle; but roasted coffee powder gives out no such colour.”

In another letter, dated 9 November 1852³, Lindley describes how, following their research, they have been able to identify other adulterants, saying “It appears that the articles usually employed for mixing are the Roots of Mangel Wurzel, Turnips, Parsnips and Carrots, or Seeds such as Beans, Peas, Lupines, Acorns and Malt.”

Coffee adulteration still occurs today, but our tools and analysis capabilities, as well as food safety laws, have come a long way.  So while you’re enjoying your cup of joe on International Coffee Day, relish the fact that you are sharing a time-honoured tradition with the Victorians, but more importantly, that you aren’t drinking roasted acorns!

¹Weighed in the Balance, by PW Hammond and Harold Egan, 1992, pg 40-43.

²Lindley, John. Chicory & Coffee. Letter. London, 9 June 1852. Inland Revenue, Laboratory of the Government Chemist.

³Lindley, John. Chicory & Coffee. Letter. London, 9 November 1852. Inland Revenue, Laboratory of the Government Chemist.

Food chain resilience in a changing world

A few weeks ago, we were joined by experts and industry leaders at our biennial Government Chemist Conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Food chain resilience in a changing world’.

Attendees were treated to a variety of presentations about food chain resilience from Food Standards Agency, Public Health England, the European Commission’s Joint Research Council, Cambridge University, and many others.

Topics ranged from food crime to genome sequencing and genetics, as well as preparing the food industry for Brexit and systems for fighting fraud.

Among some of the popular topics discussed were meat speciation techniques and food authenticity, which underline current issues surrounding consumer trust in food manufacturing.

Methods for detecting trace amounts of undeclared ingredients in food have evolved enormously in recent years, but incidents still occur. Recent reports suggest that some ‘meat-free’ ready meals have even contained trace amounts of meat, although the exact amount and method of transfer have yet to be determined.

Any food used as an ingredient in a pre-packed processed product, (i.e. in the ‘recipe’) must be declared in the list of ingredients. Adventitious meat cross contamination isn’t generally regarded as deliberate fraud under 1 %. But even below this ‘cut-off’ point there are implications for consumer choice, especially if avoiding meat (vegetarian or vegan preferences), or specific meat species for religious reasons.

When ‘trace’ amounts of a material have been found in food, it suggests adventitious cross contamination (which could be obtained from inadequate cleaning of equipment, for example), rather than intentional adulteration. Particularly with foods that contain many ingredients, like ready meals, this could come from any of the ingredients at any point along the supply chain.

This makes the methodology of detection that much more important, as each technique has its own level of accuracy. For instance, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) screens for the absence or presence of specific DNA within a defined limit of detection, which would require the scientist to know what to look for. Care is required in carrying out these tests and interpretation of the results.  Meanwhile, Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) detects and sequences all DNA material in a sample, which allows for a greater understanding of the makeup of foods. Once the NGS finishes its analysis, millions of sequences can be analysed to identify species, but this method is more expensive and can be resource intensive.

These are just two examples of methods used recently to determine authenticity, but there isn’t uniformity in methods and standards around the world. Now that we are becoming more globally focussed than ever before, in both trade and knowledge sharing, there should be more harmonisation among techniques used in different places. Food supplies might cross several different borders before becoming food; processed, tested and analysed with different standards. It’s important that we have robust systems in place to ensure that food standards and methods for measurement are equal and that all food is both safe and exactly what it claims to be.

And many of the speakers and attendees of the GC Conference are working toward that goal, sharing their expertise on sound science, building systems for detection of fraud, and enforcing stronger regulations for food safety.

Watch the video from the conference, or you can learn more about the speakers and see their presentations here.