In the not-too-distant future, your morning jolt of joe might be made in a bioreactor. A team of Finnish scientists has created coffee in the lab from cell cultures that both smell and taste like the real deal.
Using a bioreactor designed for cellular agriculture, researchers at Technical Research Center (VTT) in Finland—a country that consumes the most coffee per capita in the world—brewed a batch from cultured cells derived from the leaves of coffee plants for the first time, writes Heiko Rischer, the project's lead researcher, in a VTT statement.
“In terms of smell and taste, our trained sensory panel and analytical examination found the profile of the brew to bear similarity to ordinary coffee,” Rischer tells Gaynor Selby of Food Ingredients First. “However, coffee making is an art and involves iterative optimization under the supervision of specialists with dedicated equipment. Our work marks the basis for such work.”
This development bodes well for the planet and the coffee industry, both of which are reeling from the strain of a high-octane obsession with the beverage—the third-most consumed drink in the world, behind tea and water. Coffee growers are finding it difficult to keep up with current global demand—about 22 billion pounds are produced each year—which places more strain on the climate due to deforestation to make way increased agriculture.
“Conventional coffee production is notoriously associated with several problematic issues, such as unsustainable farming methods, exploitation and land rights,” Rischer tells Flora Southey of Food Navigator. “Growing demand and climate change add to the problems.”
Researchers state this innovation will help make coffee production more sustainable by eliminating the need for expanded agriculture.
“The idea is to use biotechnology rather than conventional farming for the production of food and therefore provide alternative routes which are less dependent on unsustainable practices,” Rischer tells Nick Lavars of New Atlas. “For example, these solutions have a lower water footprint and less transport is needed due to local production. There isn’t any seasonal dependency or the need for pesticides either.”
Rischer and his team employed the same technique used to make other agricultural products—including meat, dairy and egg—in the lab. They cultured coffee cells and got them to grow in media, then dried and roasted the results before testing it for taste and smell.
“The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting,” Rischer says in the VTT statement. “I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place. Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it is time to scale and optimize the process. Downstream processing and product formulation together with regulatory approval and market introduction are additional steps on the way to a commercial product. That said, we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality.”
To make sure the lab-grown coffee was acceptable to consumers, VTT did a taste test with a sensory panel. The team included several varieties of coffee produced by bioreactor.
“My personal favorite was the dark roast,” Rischer tells Food Ingredients First.