I’ll never forget the day I heard an NPR interview with entomologist Dr. Douglas Emlen about dung beetles. I normally would have tuned such stories out, but this one turned fascinating quite quickly. He broke the story in a live interview that most pre-ground coffee has ground cockroaches in it.
Apparently, it’s a not-so-secret industry secret. According to the FDA’s own studies, up to 10% (and often MORE) of green coffee beans are insect-infested. According to Dr. Emlen, they can’t be processed out, so they simply get roasted with the beans and ground up into them.
Imagine yourself relaxing to the voice of interviewer Terri Gross only to hear this anecdote:
Dr. EMLEN: It’s peripheral to what we’ve been talking about but when I was an undergraduate, I was hugely influenced by a professor of mine, a biologist and entomologist named George Ichor(ph), one of the greatest entomologists I ever met. And I remember driving across the country with him when I was a college undergraduate. He was an advisor to me. I was doing research out at a place called The Rocky Mountain Lab in Colorado. And we had to keep going way out our way – this was in the late ’80s, this is before there was a Starbucks on every corner and you can get really good coffee.
And he was fiercely addicted to caffeine – to coffee. And we’d have to drive way off the interstate to go find good coffee in that day. I mean, we’d go 45 minutes off our route to go find a place that had whole bean fresh ground coffee. And I remember giving him a really hard time because we were wasting a lot of travel time trying to feed his addiction because he need a coffee every couple of hours. And he finally explained to me he had to drink only sort of whole bean fresh ground coffee. And it was because of cockroaches. There’s a point to this story which is that he found out the hard way from teaching entomology year after year after year, handling cockroaches – people used cockroaches as the lab rat for entomology labs – he got really badly allergic to them. So, he couldn’t even touch cockroaches without getting an allergic reaction. And because of that he couldn’t drink pre-ground coffee. And it turned out when he looked into it that pre-ground, you know, your big bulk coffee that you buy in a tin, is all processed from these huge stock piles of coffee. These piles of coffee, they get infested with cockroaches and there’s really nothing they can do to filter that out. So, it all gets ground up in the coffee…
Dr. EMLEN: …and he was actually allergic to pre-ground coffee because of that sort of spin off from having handled them teaching entomology for all those years.
GROSS: Oh I don’t know what to say, thank you for that marvelous insight.
Dr. EMLEN: You may not want to put that on the air.
Some people argue that it’s just a little added protein, and bugs are a great source of protein. To that I say — sure. But they can also cause allergic reactions. (I’m one of the people who always used to get a headache and runny nose after drinking pre-ground coffee.)
Others argue that a certain amount of insect parts is normal in all products like flour, nuts, rice and beans. And while that’s true, the acceptable amount of insects in coffee is 10%! That’s crazy high.
EWWW. So how can you get coffee WITHOUT ground up insects?
Don’t want to drink a fresh, hot cup of cockroaches in the morning?
Neither do I.
Thankfully, my husband is a coffee snob. I say that with nothing but affection; after all, I unabashedly enjoy his beverage making prowess. He buys freshly roasted coffee beans once every few days, then grinds them fresh at home before making each cup of joe.
When you buy whole beans, you are buying the best of the best — beans with no insect infestation, no insect damage or filth, and no mold. These beans get selected then roasted separately. Because you buy them whole, you can see how pristine they are.
We use this Cuisinart to grind our beans fresh each morning. It’s served us faithfully for about five years now.
I also recently discovered this hand-cranked Kyocera Ceramic Coffee Grinder. I figure if our Cuisinart ever gives out, we’ll buy this Kyocera to replace it. I like that it doesn’t use electricity and that the bowl is made of glass instead of plastic.
Regardless of the grinder you use, here’s the main thing to keep in mind about avoiding a steamy cup of roaches:
The trick is to buy whole beans and grind them yourself.
It’s that simple.
That’s a relief! But what about buying from places like Starbucks that grind their beans fresh for you?
While that may solve the cockroach problem, it doesn’t solve the bug problem.
That’s because when you buy processed foods — including coffee — you still need to be wary of food coloring made from ground up cochineal insects. In fact, Starbucks has even come under fire for using cochineal dyes.
Cochineal dyes are in a LOT of processed foods. You will find them on ingredients labels under the names “cochineal extract” (which is literally ground up bugs), and “carmine” (which is processed a bit more to create a more pure color).
Where you’ll see cochineal dyes:
- frozen fish and meat
- any red pre-made drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks, and even alcohol
- yogurt and ice cream
- canned fruits like berries, cherries, and jams
Basically, cochineal extract (and it’s sister carmine) is the “natural” alternative to Red #40.
So how do I avoid cochineal extract?
Again, it’s rather simple. Start reading labels and ditching anything with “cochineal extract” or “carmine” listed.
My preferred solution?
Avoid processed foods. Just buy whole foods and enjoy processing them at home yourself!