In fact a new study found that people will pay up to 13% more for a latte if the barista takes a moment to draw a little heart on the top—so expect a lot more caffeinated Valentines in the coming months. But it’s not just the hipster music, the bizarre French-Italian terminology, and the wildly vacillating prices at your local shop that make coffee confusing. Simply buying a bag to take home has become a study in linguistics analysis and macroeconomics. How do you figure out whether you’re paying too much for a cup of coffee (especially if you haven’t had your morning coffee yet)?
From “fair trade” to “shade grown” to the omnipresent “morning blend,” the editors of Eat This, Not That! decoded the industry jargon to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth. Read on below, and learn the other ways food marketers may be hoodwinking you with these 24 Biggest Nutrition Myths—Busted!
THE CLAIM: 100% Arabica Beans
THE TRUTH: Coffee beans come in two main varieties: arabica and robusta. Of the two, arabica beans deliver the most complex flavors, but because they’re more difficult to grow—i.e., more expensive—commercial roasters such as Folgers often fill out their blends with cheap robusta beans. That makes for a cup with big body but low acid, which means it’s heavy in the mouth but not particularly interesting to the tongue. Small-scale craft roasters don’t generally bother putting this information on the bag, but that’s fine considering most of them wouldn’t dare to pollute their coffee with robustas.
BOTTOM LINE: When you’re shopping the commercial blends in the supermarket, look for brands that boast they’re 100% Arabica. And when hunger strikes, pair your coffee with cookies, crackers or other healthy choice from this brand-new list of The 50 Most Delicious Brand-Name Snacks!
THE CLAIM: Fair Trade Certified
THE TRUTH: Much of the world’s coffee is grown in impoverished countries where farmers struggle to feed their families, and fair trade certification is the cooperative effort to change this. Right now that means US importers pay farmers no less than $1.35 per pound of conventional coffee and $1.51 per pound of organic. That would have been huge in 2001 when the year’s average was $.46 per pound, but today the average farmer sells at more than $1.20, according to the International Coffee Organization. Furthermore, some journalists have uncovered instances where fair trade farmers were making less than the minimum wage set by their government, and some economists argue that the artificial price floor creates a surplus for fair trade coffee that ultimately drives down the price of noncertified beans.
BOTTOM LINE: Most fair trade coffee is also organic, and many struggling farmers have improved their lives by working with fair trade organizations.
THE CLAIM: Organic
THE TRUTH: Organic coffee, so long as it bears the official logo of the USDA, falls under the same governmental regulation as organic produce, which tells you that the coffee has been grown, transported, and roasted without the use of herbicides or pesticides. Unfortunately, no major studies have looked at how this affects your health, but there’s no question about organic’s impact on the environment. Chemical-reliant farming methods have been linked to fish deaths along the coasts of coffee-growing communities, and pesticides in water raise the concern for long-term health problems for locals. For organic beans you’ll likely pay a premium—generally about 25 percent more. Some of that trickles down to the farmer, but a wave of Latin coffee growers, for example, have been abandoning organic beans because they can’t recoup the extra expenses.
BOTTOM LINE: Buy organic because you don’t like pesticides, but not necessarily because the farmer will see more of that extra cash you shell out. And learn which organic foods are worth the $$$ with this list of 14 Best “Clean” Packaged Foods!
THE CLAIM: Shade Grown
THE TRUTH: A common practice in coffee farming is to clear off the native trees to make room for more coffee trees, destroying natural biodiversity and creating monocultures that rely on pesticides and fertilizers to produce beans. So in theory, “shade grown” is supposed to tell you that a diverse ecosystem still thrives on the farm. The problem is that there’s no organization governing the term, which leaves it open to abuse by any farmer whose farm has a few lonely trees scattered about.
BOTTOM LINE: For environmentally meaningful certification, look for “Bird Friendly” and “Rainforest Alliance Certified” stamps.
THE CLAIM: Morning Blend
THE TRUTH: A blend is simply a mix of beans from at least two different regions, and a “morning blend” is whatever that particular roaster thought you might enjoy at the start of the day. In contrast with blends are the single-origin coffees, which are identified simply by their place of origin: Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, or whatever the case may be. Presumably the goal with blending is to create a better-tasting cup, but often that’s not the case. Some roasters blend to bury the mistakes of flawed beans, and many connoisseurs find the pure flavors of single-origin coffee more satisfying than blends. And get this: When Consumer Reports recently rated 37 popular blends from places such as Starbucks, Peets, Caribou, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, not one of them was considered good enough to earn the top scores of “excellent” or “very good.”
BOTTOM LINE: Skip it, and find your favorite single-origin cup. And to lose weight before you even rise and shine, read this science-backed list of the 14 Ways to Wake Up With Zero Belly!
THE CLAIM: Rainforest Alliance Certified
THE TRUTH: Rainforest Alliance Certified must meet a strict set of requirements that promote sustainable resource management and the preservation of healthy ecosystems. That means farms must be partially covered by native trees, farmers must make living wages, and farming methods must have a minimal impact on the natural environment. The only designation more meaningful than the Rainforest Alliance Certification is the Bird Friendly stamp. Bird Friendly coffees have similarly strict eco standards, but they require the farm to also be certified organic, whereas the Rainforest Alliance allows the use of some chemicals.
BOTTOM LINE: Buy it, and help to make a difference.