Despite ever-growing demand for organic coffee beans, the label doesn’t necessarily bear on quality, sustainability, or health benefits.
We all want to live healthier, better lives, and the food we consume is a critical choice. As coffee lovers, we love the countless new studies and articles about the health benefits of coffee. And interest from consumers has led to more health-oriented coffee choices. This includes demand for organic coffee beans at the grocery store and in cafes.
At Bean Box, we drink a ton of freshly-roasted coffee every day. And we tend to care a ton about what we put in our bodies, for better or worse. That’s why it’s so important to clarify some of the key facts and common fictions about organic coffee.
Here’s an amazing stat: among the 1,000+ roasts we’ve featured over the past six years, only 11 are “organic”. This doesn’t reflect a lack of demand, but our super-obsessive roasters prioritize other attributes like small farm size. Their intent is to optimize for the highest quality coffee, and organic doesn’t show up on radar.
If you head into Whole Foods, you’ll see many labels all conjuring up images of healthier, more sustainable coffee:
On the shelf, all these labels strive for attention, whether or not they bear on the product or its experience. For a farm to be USDA Organic Certified, it must meet strict requirements and develop an organic system plan. But what that means for the environment and the consumer is largely up to interpretation.
In many cases, a roaster buys green (un-roasted) beans that come labelled or certified as organic. But in order to preserve the designation, they must handle and roast the coffee with dedicated equipment. This includes roasters, scales, packing machines, and containers. For many, this is cost prohibitive, and the alternative (thorough cleaning between runs) requires too much time/labor. Often, we see organic beans for sale even though the equipment renders the roast non-organic.
Most consumers think that organic equals natural, and that natural equals organic. But organic does not mean no pesticides. Nor does it mean no synthetic pesticides. The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) specifically outlines the list of allowed and prohibited substances. The allows many synthetic substances, and it also prohibits many non-synthetic substances. For example, boric acid and copper sulfates (both synthetic) can be used for “structural pest control”. Coffee lovers who want to feed their food anxieties will have a field day with the list of permitted substances.
But no matter what substances the farm uses, remember that beans transform during the journey from farm to cup. This may negate any negative effects from the farming process. Unlike strawberries (where farm residue lingers on the edible surface), coffee processing includes removing the bean from the outer fruit. Also, roasting coffee means subjecting the beans to heat of more than 400° F.
There are various exceptions for organic labelling in the US, including for tiny farms. But remember that almost all coffee beans are imported into the United States. Some beans that are labelled in their country of origin as organic might not quality for USDA organic status. At present, only a limited set of countries have bilateral equivalence with the US.
Without a doubt, the USDA Organic farming guidelines foster the spirit of sustainability. The rules for certification codify current best practices for farming at scale without harming the environment. But many argue that runoff from any pesticide, natural or not, may in fact strain local ecosystems. Still, for a coffee farm to pay for and acquire certification, the economics suggest they are operating at large scale, which we know to strain the environment. By contrast, small family-run farms, who focus on micro-lot coffees, operate organically by necessity.
The jury has not yet rendered a verdict on this one. Without a doubt, some pesticide residues have been shown to be bad for us. But unlike eating a strawberry, coffee beans come to us at an extreme remove from the farm and its environment. To the contrary, research over the past decade show overwhelming evidence for the health benefits of coffee.
Many factors determine the quality of a coffee. These include elevation, soil, harvest and processing technique on the farm. They also include the roasting process, coffee freshness, and even the quality of the water. From an economic standpoint, farms and roasters who can afford to become organic certified also generally operating at higher scale. Factory farming of commodity coffee generally means lower quality in the cup. We believe coffee quality comes from the amount of love and attention a coffee receives, from farm to roaster to cup. This is why we work with roasters who are meticulous about their bean sources and roasting.
If you want to find the best organic coffee beans, ask the same questions you’d ask of any roaster. Is the coffee from a small lot? Is it grown at a high altitude? Does the roaster have a direct relationship with the farm? Don’t limit your considerations to the label.
In many categories of food, organic certification can be truly meaningful. But in coffee, to guarantee the highest quality, healthiest cup, stick to small-batch roasters who deal in micro-lots. Look for end-to-end handling dedicated to quality, rather than scale. There’s nothing more important to us than the quality of the coffee we drink every day. And so we hope this helps clarify how best to think about what makes your brew truly great.