The term “organic” in food has grown in mainstream popularity over the last 15 years. This term, which carries an additional 20–40% price tag compared to its non-organic counterparts has been correlated to “healthier”, “better-for-you”, and “higher quality”; but as we have come to know, with any marketing terminology, there is always a catch.
Let’s take a step back and define “organic.” By definition, organic food cannot be grown with synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, it cannot be genetically engineered, and livestock cannot be treated with antibiotics or hormones.
Notice there are lots of restrictions in the agriculture practice, but not as many defined guidelines regarding quality assurance. Also notice — the definition doesn’t suggest “natural” or “better-for-you,” but our modern marketing perception has turned us to believe that is a common denominator with organic products.
Let’s move forward and explore some marketing tactics that Big Food has incorporated into our grocery vocabulary.
“Not from concentrate” — what does that even mean? Historically, various juice companies in the 1900s pasteurized juices and removed water during manufacturing to reduce the weight of the shipment in the supply chain, or sometimes they even produced powders that taste close-enough to the real deal. Not only did this reduce product quality, but it allowed marketers to distract consumers from the fact that the product is shelf-stable vs. refrigerated, which meant most of the “natural” ingredients are destroyed in the manufacturing process by removing oxygen in production (aseptic filling).
SunnyD vs. Tropicana — when these brands were direct competitors sitting side by side on the shelf, consumers only looked at the price tag and didn’t understand the difference, since they contained similar levels of Vitamin C. The reality is that SunnyD is made from less than 2% orange juice, has added Vitamin C, and is shelf-stable, while Tropicana is made of real oranges and is considered a refrigerated orange juice, not from concentrate.
“Natural flavors” — this is an encyclopedia of unknown ingredients and flavors. They are generally used to mask off-flavors that are byproducts of harsh manufacturing practices. If better-for-you ingredients are a priority for you, avoiding “natural flavors” may be healthier than an “organic” certification on the product.
Let’s bring this back to Ready-to-Drink (RTD) Coffee and explore the differences between organic and non-organic.
Unlike most beverages, RTD Coffee goes through a rigorous process before we consume it:
Step 1. Growing the coffee crop — generally grown in developing nations at high elevations in both shaded and sunny regions.
Step 2. Roasting the beans — after the coffee seed is removed from the cherry, the green beans are imported to the country of consumption and roasted 1–2 weeks before consumption.
Step 3. Brewing the coffee — plenty of different brewing methods are available, involving a range of temperatures, grind settings, timing, and pressure. (At Dripdash, we brew our coffee using the Kyoto Iced Coffee method, using one drop at a time for 16 hours.)
Step 4. Preparing the coffee to be packaged and Ready-to-Drink:
This is where things get tricky. Because RTD Coffee is considered a low-acid food (pH >4.6), we have to take certain measures to avoid botulism. The most natural preservation method includes adding nitrogen, which naturally reduces oxidation and deterioration, and then we must keep the product refrigerated until consumption. Using these two tactics allows the product to remain high quality, but it does pose a challenging shelf-life (anywhere between 1 week to 4 months).
If the quality and integrity of the coffee bean isn’t a priority, you can go through manufacturing “kill-steps” to make the product shelf-stable, which in turn, will deactivate many of the favorable coffee compounds and burn off most of the healthy antioxidants. To compensate for the damage of the organoleptic profile that occurs during the “kill steps,” you will then need to add “natural flavors” to the ingredients to boost the flavor profile and create a realistic experience. (Based on the earlier example, the lower quality shelf-stable coffee is equivalent to the SunnyD, while the perishable coffee is higher quality and equivalent to Tropicana).
So, why are we sharing the lifecycle of coffee before it becomes Ready-to-Drink (RTD), and how does this tell us anything about organic coffee benefits or lack thereof?
Great question, which leads to this next point about how coffee is grown and processed.
- The coffee bean is actually a seed, which is grown inside of a cherry.
- The “shell” of the seed is very thick so the pesticides never get to the portion we roast or consume any fractions of.
- The shell is removed and used as organic fertilizer for the bean, while we dry the seed through various processes (i.e. natural, washed, honey, etc.)
- After the coffee bean (seed) is dried, we roast it, which eliminates 99.8% of pesticides (Step 2 from above).
So it seems as if there shouldn’t be a difference between organic and non-organic coffee since there are nearly 0 traceable pesticides by the point of consumption. The only concern at this point for non-organic would be the soil and toxicity in the environment that come with pesticides — here’s how the farmers address it:
- 90% of the coffee in the world comes from developing nations (mostly South America and Africa) where obtaining organic certification isn’t feasible financially.
- From these developing nations, about 30% of the coffee is grown directly by small families that depend on this crop for their living.
- Specialty coffee brands, such as Dripdash, source coffee using direct-trade in order to support and acknowledge the producers and their families, and these farms also happen to have the best crops due to their attention to detail and craft in the growing process.
- The first priority for these family farms is to have healthy soil that is sustainable for the long haul, especially since these farms are passed down through generations. Regenerative farming and sustainable practices are constantly being improved in micro-lots in order to keep the family business alive. The farmers wouldn’t risk exposing the coffee shrubs to harmful pesticides, so the majority of these micro-lots create fertilizer from a mixture of the coffee shell, manure, and other forms of organic pesticides.
In fact, when we look at the craft beverage industry, it’s pretty rare to find organic wine or beer, even though their respective ingredients are grown in the US…
Craft industries tend to focus on ethical production that comes with high-quality ingredients, but developing nations don’t have the resources to get certification unless they are commercial grade farms, which generally sacrifice quality for larger yield and have a variety of other unethical practices — but let’s leave that to the side for now.
So as you decide about what is healthier for you and the planet, it’s important to look at the entire supply chain from seed to cup. What is the final form that you will be consuming the beverage — will you brew it yourself at home, or will you buy a ready-to-drink coffee?
If you brew at home and buy the beans from a roaster, find out the story. The more specific it gets, the more likely you are to find information about the producers and their regenerative practices.
In the same way wine is more premium as you get more specific with the region and type of grape, i.e. red blend -> central coast red wine -> central coast cabernet sauvignon. The latter is the most expensive and premium of the 3.
If you buy an RTD Coffee, same thing — read the story! Is it perishable or is it shelf-stable? If it’s perishable AND doesn’t have “natural ingredients,” the manufacturer probably cares more about the artisanality and maintaining coffee integrity.
If it’s shelf-stable and has “natural flavors,” but also claims to be organic, well… Hopefully, this article taught you a thing or two about how to distinguish that shelf-stable is likely worse for you than any perishable high-quality coffee, whether or not it’s organic.
So now that we’ve gone through the different life stages of the coffee bean, discussed the regenerative farming practices of micro-lot and specialty coffee producers, and discussed the realities of organic certification in the specialty coffee world, you are in the know. So go ahead, tell your friends that next time they’re paying extra for organic coffee, maybe they should reconsider that price tag.