Is coffee good for you? We asked an actual scientist!

There is a lot of research on coffee, although a truly scientific one is hard to come by. Doctor Samo Smrke is one of the few people dedicated to studying coffee using scientific methods (and a lot of dedication). He heads School of Life Sciences and Facility Management

Section for Coffee Competence Centre and Analytical Technologies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. Dr Smrke has also worked with Speciatly Coffee Association on Coffee Freshness Handbook, the first SCA book dedicated to extraction process research. We spoke to the Swiss scientist about the coffee myths and the biggest challenges the industry faces these days. He also tells us how many cups of coffee you can drink without worrying for your health.

– Let me start with something light – can you name the funniest media headline about coffee research?

– This is not such an easy question, since there is not that much about coffee research in the mainstream media. The thing I find interesting is that coffee gets at times the attention as being unhealthy and then again as healthy, despite the science for a long time saying that up to five coffees per day is for most people a health benefit.

– What’s would you say is the biggest misconception about coffee? How can we debunk these myths?

– There are too many myths with coffee. The biggest misconception is in my opinion that you can simply do, for example, five coffee extractions, change some extraction parameters, taste the coffee and claim that something you changed has an impact on the taste of coffee. 

Any this kind of “research” produces misconceptions. The only way to debunk these myths is to take the scientific approach to the problem: make a hypothesis of what is happening, do the experiments, and always change only one parameter at a time, repeat the experiments as many times as possible, perform tasting only in what is called a blind tasting (the tasters are not knowing what they are tasting), and in the end perform statistical analysis of results. This process takes a long time and many coffees to analyse to really show if something is true or not.

– Though coffee industry is booming these days scientific methods are few and far between in modern coffee sphere. What seems to be the problem? Why do you think the coffee research lacks so much? Can you point out some successful cases and researchers?

– I think this is a perception only and a problem of communication. Coffee research is also booming, but not all of it is visible. One of the reasons is that the research is often not public. 

A good example of this is the capsule coffee industry. A lot of research needs to be put it to produce a coffee capsule, but rarely the research effort is visible.

– Can you talk us through the efforts your team makes at Coffee Excellence Center of the Zurich University of Applied Sciences? What are the principle themes you study?

– Our team studies the whole “value chain” of coffee, we focus our research on five pillars: green coffee, transformation (roasting and grinding), extraction (and water), aroma, sustainability and education.

Our main goal as a university group is to work with the industry on coffee research projects where by using the state-of-the-art equipment for chemical analysis we study various processes involved with coffee, such as: fermentation, aroma generation during roasting, coffee freshness and packaging, extraction, contaminants, etc. 

The second goal of our group is to communicate the science of coffee, the recent research finding with the community, to make the research visible.

– What would you say is the most perspective field of research in the coffee industry? What areas would you say needs the research the most?

– Coffee is a fascinating product from a research point of view. It is simple on the outside, but once looked in detail it actually becomes incredibly complex. It is probably one of the most chemically complex and one of the most studied foods. 

Any kind of coffee field we look in detail, the more we look in detail, more questions we find. If I would to point out fields that need most attention currently, I would say it is extraction and roasting. These fields have been studied a lot in the past, but recently slightly forgotten, we should revisit them.

– What’s your take on the recent SCA proposal to establish a body dedicated to espresso and the extraction process research? You’ve had an experience working with SCA on Coffee Freshness Handbook, what’s your impression of the project?

– The step towards studying the extraction process is much needed currently. There was a lot of extraction studies done in the past on espresso, but recently innovative applied research on extraction stayed behind other coffee research. The problem with extraction is bridging the practical knowledge of extraction with the theory of extraction. A lot is still unknown in the extraction process, and many myths are present in the coffee community. I believe SCA research about extraction will close this bridge between theory and practice.

– The most devastating threat that the coffee business is facing concerns global warming. What should the industry do to survive the threat?

– I am not an expert on this field to say specific solutions. But I believe we need to collaborate, work together not against each other with this big problem that we are facing.

– We have a pilot project here in Ukraine dedicated to coffee research based in Ivano-Frankivsk. What’s the most important advice you can give to the scientists starting to conduct research in the sphere?  

– Be passionate about and dedicated to coffee and science!