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 Safety Week and beyond: LGC’s long history in food testing

Food Safety Week, organised by the UK’s Food Standards Agency, is an opportunity to learn more about current food issues, including food crime, compliance and food hygiene. This year’s campaign celebrates “the people who protect your plate” – the workers who ensure the UK public can trust the food they eat, including inspectors, local authorities, and public analysts.

Also at the forefront of the fight for food safety are chemists, who analyse food, drinks and supplements to ensure manufacturers can verify the safety of their food products.

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The original Government Laboratory plaque and tea samples.

Consumers trust that when they buy food and drink, they are getting exactly what they’ve been told they are getting.  Each food has a distinct composition, much like its own fingerprint, and with the right expertise and tools, it’s possible to study these foods to determine their authenticity.  LGC has been involved in food testing for over 175 years. In fact, it’s the very reason we were established. In 1842, the Board of Excise needed a scientific authority to see that goods, like tea, tobacco and spirits, were not adulterated for profit, and so it created the Government Laboratory.

The Government Chemist role was created in 1909, to ensure the Laboratory of the Government Chemist could work independently of the Inland Revenue department (which provided staff to the Laboratory) and the Board of Customs and Excise (which controlled it). Nowadays the Government Chemist oversees the statutory function of referee analyst, resolving disputes over analytical measurements, particularly in relation to food regulatory enforcement.

As LGC grew, so did our roles involved in food and feed testing. Not only are we involved as the referee analyst for disputes in the food industry, we also provide products and solutions to food safety-related issues.

In order for food producers to know with certainty that their food is authentic, it’s necessary to compare what they’ve produced with a known and verified version of the food – this is called a reference material, or standard.  Currently, we have over 15,000 reference materials for food analysis, for everything from allergens, contaminants, and toxins to food flavourings, dyes and proteins, and much more.

Chemists also study new methods of authenticating foods, including via mass spectrometry, which is considered to be the gold standard in analysis, especially when combined with chromatography. Mass spectrometers analyse a sample’s elemental molecular weight, which is its ‘fingerprint’.  The tools and expertise of the National Measurement Laboratory at LGC allow our measurement scientists to be accurate about the content of a sample to up to one part per quadrillion. In other words, we can detect one lump of sugar dissolved in a bay.  These capabilities allow us to work on specific projects, tailoring our research to benefit many different sectors and solve specific problems.

This was particularly evident during a recent case studying selenium within food products and supplements.  It is essential that the correct amount and species of selenium is present in order for fortified food products and supplements to be safe for human consumption.  Selenium-enriched foods and supplements have become more prominent in Europe since it has moved to using more wheat that is naturally low in selenium.

However the accurate measurement of total selenium in food and food supplements presents analytical challenges due to the complex nature of food samples. Furthermore, selenium speciation analysis presents additional challenges due to the low levels of each specific selenium species and the molecular complexity of such samples.

LGC’s measurement research team for inorganic mass spectrometry has extensive experience in selenium speciation and was able to develop and characterise a range of reference materials, including a matrix selenium-enriched wheat flour standard, to support the food industry.

With over 175 years in the food testing arena, we have a lot to say about the subject, so if you want to learn more, head over to our website where you can read case studies and learn about our reference materials.

You can also join us at next week’s Government Chemist Conference, where we will be discussing current food safety issues at length, including Brexit, food authenticity, and food regulation, with many experts in their fields, including the FSA themselves. Visit the conference website to view the entire programme and register.