mycotoxins – is it really such a big problem ?

Yet again we are faced with the latest fad attempting to charge super-premium prices.

In this article we take a look at the current debate about mycotoxin in coffee and how it’s managed within the industry.

Over the last 12 months we have seen a dramatic increase in number of people enquiring about coffee that is low in mycotoxin (or mycotoxin-free).

We can only assume these requests are motivated by individuals who are highly focused on their personal health.

Unfortunately, greedy marketers will find a way to exhort plenty of premium margin by labeling their coffee low in mycotoxins and therefore superior over other suppliers coffee.

Just like the Kopi Lewak and other coffee fads that are ridiculously priced, I don’t like to see consumer duped or ripped off, so here is my take on the situation.

Before we start delving into the detail, it is important to declare upfront that I am not a chemist, doctor or scientist – just an engineer and a realist. So, the obvious disclaimers apply – the article may contain technical errors, however the intent is to balance theory with the practical realities of what occurs in the various supply chains.

What is mycotoxin.

According to Wiki, mycotoxin is group of fungus/mould that colonizes in food crops or food products including animals and in certain conditions it can survive reactions from temperature extremes (hot or cold) and digestion.

Of the nine major types of mould species, the one we will focus on is the Ochratoxin A, or OTA as it most closely relates to the type found in beverages and vine grown plants such as coffee trees, etc.

If you read and understood the effects of mycotoxin, it may scare you enough to instantly give up coffee and live a caffeine-free existence. However, as with any information it needs to be taken on balance and in perspective and if you lived by the same rules for other food and beverages, your life would be very difficult as you would need to eliminate many commons products.

Some of the Self-Help Medical or Nutrition websites offer basic guides to help reduce the level of mycotoxins when consuming coffee. Unfortunately, I think these guides have a tendency to be ultra idealistic and in many respects they border on factual error running the risk of misleading consumers.

Let’s take a look at some of the published recommendations for reducing mycotoxin levels in coffee:-

Drink coffee that has been made via wet processing. mycotoxins often form during the drying process, wet beans are much less likely to contain them than dry bean

I’m not convinced of this statement being entirely correct. There are 2 primary methods of processing coffee – wet (washed) and dry (sundried), with a few variations to these methods such a wet-hulled (Indonesia), semi-washed, honeyed, etc. In Australia, washed arabica coffees tend to be quite popular and used by many specialty roasters, but the dry processed coffees which are common in Brazil are still used in high proportions. I’m not a coffee broker, so I can’t report on the split of washed versus dry, but if I look at our own purchasing records, the ratio is about 60% washed, 40% dry. As we buy a plenty of small, exotic microlots, our figures could be slightly skewed.

Where I take some exception to the statement is that one method is not safer than the other – it comes down to the care and attention applied by the farmer or the processing Co-Op. If they employ good practices and have the appropriate levels of infrastructure, there can be no reason why one method is safer than the other.

Putting on the practical realist hat, you need to understand that most coffee is grown in 3rd world countries, at extremely high altitudes where there is limited water, utilities (power) and infrastructure (weatherproof warehouses, milling equipment, cleaning supplies, etc.). Coffee is a very labor-intensive product, subjected to weather patterns and as such the resultant end quality is determined by the skill and resources of the farmer.

Let’s explore some of the risks associated with wet-processing. This method requires a considerable amount of water. As you can expect, at high altitudes it can be very difficult to capture and store water as it likes to run downhill very fast. With many farms not having much in the way of power or equipment, managing water can be a constant challenge – in some cases they are forced to manually cart water.

What if low water quality is used for processing, e.g. recycled, etc. does this raise the risk of taints or accelerate the growth of fungus or mould spores ?

What if the processing of the washed coffee was not handled correctly – this can occur in many stages from filters, soaking too long in the tanks or poor techniques used to dry the coffee (drainage).

Do not drink decaffeinated coffee. Caffeine actually protects coffee beans from the growth of mould and can prevent large amounts of mycotoxins from growing.

As I am not a scientist or chemist, I can’t address this issue specifically – but the statement in inconclusive.

What is not explained here is that the coffee beans used to generate decaf coffee are standard, traditional raw coffee that is subsequently processed through a decaffeination method, so the mycotoxin level of the decaf would have been a pre-existing condition.

One would think that the decaf processed via water method includes lots and lots of water washing, therefore the effect of this water “cleaning” may in fact be more important than the levels of caffeine in the bean – one for the scientist I’m afraid, as you won’t expect Swiss Water or Mountain Water to come out with statements other than defending their systems.

Are they saying that removing caffeine increases the risk of mycotoxins developing  - is this referring to something that may occur in the period between decaffeination and consumption, e.g. the storage of the raw decaf coffee prior to roasting ?

There are 2 types of decaffeination – chemical and the patented water types (Swiss Water or Mountain Water). Using the chemical-free processes as an example, there is no evidence to indicate that mycotoxin levels have changed as the manufacturers of the finished raw coffee product do not publish this information.

Choose arabica beans over robusta beans. Though robusta varieties do have higher levels of caffeine, they also contain more mycotoxins.

I will leave this one to the scientist or the robusta zealots to argue for or against.

Consider the environment in which your beans are grown. Because mould is less apt to grow at higher elevations, buying beans that have been harvested in the mountains of Central America is a great way to decrease the amount of toxins in your coffee.

The mountains of Central America are not the only destination where high altitude arabica is grown. Again, this is another example of a “guide’s” incomplete and very limited advice.

Whilst just about every origin is generally capable of preparing superb, high quality coffee, they are also equally capable of generating low quality coffee – and it happens at various altitudes.

Stay away from blends. Though blended coffees may taste good, there really is no way of telling where the different bean varieties have come from. Try to stick to single estate products rather than the major brand names.

This one is a red-rag to a bull for me – obviously written by a person lacking experience and understanding of all things coffee – based upon the flawed assumption that knowing an origin means you can be safer in terms of your decision making. What a load of utter rubbish.

Blending is performed to assist roasters in achieving consistency goals. Conspiracy theories abound about how roasters only blend to save money, using the cheapest and nastiest coffees they can source and mixing in small quantities of good stuff to keep the flavour respectable – this is just more junk information perpetuated by selfish skinflints assuming everyone is trying to save or make more money than they can.

Here is the way it works….

95% of coffee drinkers become accustomed to a coffee and they want, expect and even demand the same product day after day, month after month, year after year. When it changes, they cry foul and think someone is trying to “save money”.

Of course, there are those cherished brave souls on a journey of discovery that are prepared to embrace something new, but in general, production of roasted coffee needs to comply to some basic forms of specification – just like in any industry, there is a buyer and a seller who need to agree on transaction terms – for coffee these are typically consistency and quality, something only blends can deliver over periods of time.

Reality is the coffee industry is in chaotic states of flux.

Just like the wine industry, coffee is subjected to the growing conditions of mother nature and the factors of supply and demand, however in the wine industry the consumers celebrate the diversity of each year’s vintage whereas in coffee this is essentially deemed a “bad” thing.

Every single week I have a challenge relating to sourcing raw coffee. As I type this article on a Sunday afternoon in early Jan 2013, I have shortages in 3 of my biggest volume origins that I am sweating on will be resolved in the coming 3 – 4 days.

Coffee does not taste the same year round – it’s a fact. Blending is intended to minimize or smooth out the issues relating to variable supply and seasonal influences from growing conditions and more importantly to provide added character and dynamic by fusing together complimentary beans. Many single origins are one-dimensional and may not satisfy the consumer.

We are one of Australia’s largest suppliers of roasted premium Single Origin coffees – it’s our specialty and we use those exact quality single origins in our blends – so the advice about staying away  from blends because you don’t know the origins is just a paranoid rant.

Roasters are not going to reveal intimate details of what’s in their blends – why should they ? For us, it can take years to perfect a blend – that’s a lot of intellectual property locked up in the formula. With the Australian coffee industry being super competitive, who wants to give one of the other 500 companies a free ride.

Raw coffee stored for long periods in warehouses develop higher OTA levels

Roasters don’t like holding large quantities of raw coffee.

It consumes physical space and requires the outlay of considerable capital affecting their cash flow. Supplies of raw coffee are inconsistent and therefore roasters are forced to take actions such as forward contracting and storing raw coffees in order to guarantee supply.

Mould and fungus can develop in raw coffee storage, particularly in warm and humid environments or if there is poor ventilation. Roasters typically wish to protect or preserve their investment in raw materials, so they will take measures to improve the storage of their precious greens.

We believe that storage of coffee at origin and transportation of coffee from origin to the port of destination are higher risk factors of OTA development.  99.9% of the coffee is moved around the world in standard shipping containers without cooling or ventilation. If you have ever opened up a container that has been sitting in the sun at 30 degrees C, you would have been shocked at the high temperature inside the container.

Many of the coffee growing origins suffer port congestion. Countries such as Tanzania and other African origins are land-locked and raw coffee can sit in basic tin sheds sweating for months at a time awaiting movement. These are the conditions where OTA is likely to be an issue, yet it is not tested or measured by farmers, Co-Operatives, exporters or importers.

One of the world’s 4th largest origins (and a producer of some of the world’s best arabica), Ethiopia, is renown for having transportation issues that affect supply out of the country. PNG is another origin where there are limited roads that can get washed out in heavy rainfalls, affected supply.

How we see the mycotoxin situation at the moment

Barely a day passes where some new report will state that a food or human behaviour can be potentially dangerous to your health.

Consumers can be easily spooked by such claims.

Management of mycotoxin is effectively an oxymoron at this time as there are no controls or records being processed from the farm to the cup. The two basic measurements performed on raw coffee are the moisture levels and relative bean density. Moisture levels are a critical factor used by export and import brokers in negotiating quality and price contracts.

Some coffee growing countries have groups, or Associations, focused on improving the quality of the products produced by their farmers through education and training. Some of these groups are also participating in various studies that include the testing and control of mycotoxin levels.

Australia is now regarded as having one of the highest standard espresso coffee preparations in the world. What naturally occurs from this competitive domestic coffee environment is increased demand for higher and higher grades of coffee.

With the growth of specialty coffee and single estate sourcing, the industry still lacks vital tools and processes required to manage mycotoxin reporting.

We simply cannot contact our local Australian coffee brokers and order a bag of low-mycotoxin raw coffee, nor can we ask to see the origin records of the mycotoxin reading when the coffee was exported and compare it to the current mycotoxin result. Sometimes, it can be very difficult just to get a simple moisture or bean density reading.

As a realist, I would like to see the discussion about mycotoxin continue, but it needs practical input from the industry to temper the sometimes extreme commentary that can emerge on issues relating to personal health.

Reality is that the fungus associated with mycotoxins is present in every coffee bean (wet, dry or hulled methods) and there is currently NO reliable and easy method available for measurement of mycotoxin levels, nor do the brokers have readings or records available on the lots they sell relating to mycotoxin levels – therefore everyone is “flying blind”.