Latte drinkers may in the future sip java from a petri dish rather than a plantation, say scientists behind a new technique to grow what they hope is coffee durable in a laboratory.
“It’s really coffee, because there is nothing other than coffee in the product,” Heiko Rischer told TBEN, pointing to a dish of light brown powder.
His team of researchers at the Finnish Technical Research Institute VTT believe their coffee would avoid many of the environmental pitfalls associated with mass production of one of the world’s favorite drinks.
Coffee is not ground from beans, but grown from a group of coffee tree cells under tightly controlled temperature, light and oxygen conditions in a bioreactor.
Once roasted, the powder can be brewed in exactly the same way as conventional coffee.
Rischer’s team used the same principles of cellular agriculture that were used to produce laboratory-grown meat, which does not involve the slaughter of livestock and which received approval from authorities in the past year. Singapore to go on sale for the first time.
“Coffee is of course a problematic commodity,” Rischer said, in part because rising global temperatures are making existing plantations less productive, leading farmers to clear increasingly large areas of rainforest for new crops. .
“There is the problem of transport, the use of fossil fuels … so it makes perfect sense to look for alternatives,” said Rischer.
The team is doing a more comprehensive analysis of the sustainability of their product if it was made on a large scale, but believe it would use less labor and fewer resources than conventional coffee.
“We already know that our water footprint, for example, is much less than what is needed for field growth,” Rischer said.
For coffee lovers, the key to the success of the lab-grown variety will be its taste – but so far only a panel of specially trained sensory analysts are allowed to try the new brew due to its status as ” new food “. .
For now, they are only allowed “to taste and spit, but not to swallow it,” said researcher Heikki Aisala, a sensory perception expert who is leading the project’s testers.
“Cellular coffee is less bitter compared to regular coffee,” which may be due to a slightly lower caffeine content, Aisala told TBEN, adding that the fruitiness is also less important in the powder produced in the laboratory. .
“But that being said, we really have to admit that we’re not professional coffee roasters and a lot of flavor generation actually happens in the roasting process,” Rischer said.
Other initiatives are also underway to find a more sustainable alternative to coffee.
Seattle-based startup Atomo announced in September that it had raised $ 11.5 million to fund its “molecular coffee,” which tastes the same as the drink but comes from a different organic material than a coffee plant.
But surveys in the United States and Canada have suggested widespread public distrust of laboratory-grown food substitutes, albeit less among younger consumers.
Despite the environmental benefits, some food policy scholars have warned that the livelihoods of coffee farmers could be affected if there is widespread movement towards laboratory-made products.
In Helsinki, Rischer estimates it will be at least four years before the team’s lab-grown coffee gets regulatory approval and commercial backing to sit alongside its conventional cousin on the shelves. .
The project has particular significance in Finland, which analysts group Statista ranks among the world’s top consumers of coffee, averaging 10 kilograms (22 pounds) per person each year.
“There is certainly a lot of enthusiasm for this,” Aisala said.
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