How much pesticide residue is there in coffee? Is it necessary to buy organic?
February 9, 2009 6:45 PM   Subscribe

How much pesticide residue is there in coffee? Is it necessary to buy organic?

I recall reading that it's more important to buy certain organic for specific fruits and vegetables, since some are more likely to contain pesticide residue than others.

I drink a great deal of coffee, and I love my fair trade organic beans. However, I could save a lot of money buy buying nonorganic. However, I'm a bit of a health nut. So what I'm wondering is, how much pesticide residue is there in coffee? Is this one of those cases where it's important to buy organic?
posted by mintchip to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
have you noted any adverse side effects from your "great deal of coffee" that would not be coffee related? how long have you been drinking a great deal of coffee?
posted by radiosilents at 6:59 PM on February 9, 2009

Is it necessary to buy organic?

Necessary for what? Your health? Your concern for the environment? Your spiritual well-being?

If you're concerned about health, I don't think non-organic coffee is going to do significantly more damage to your body than organic coffee. You are one coffee drinker in a world of coffee drinkers - any damaging side effects would probably be known by now.

As for the others, those are in your mind, so only you can judge how important those are.
posted by meowzilla at 7:05 PM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: I've been drinking 4-7 cups per day since my teens. I have had no problems other than mild anxiety, which may or may not be caffeine related. I'm not worried about coffee per se, and I don't intend to cut back my consumption. I'm just wondering how much pesticide residue is likely to be in "standard" beans vs. premium organic ones. Thanks!
posted by mintchip at 7:05 PM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: Oh, sorry I realize that maybe my question was not clear. To clarify, I mean is it necessary to buy organic to reduce one's exposure to cancer-causing (or otherwise toxic) chemicals such as pesticides.
posted by mintchip at 7:07 PM on February 9, 2009

Long answer, I don't believe it's necessary to buy organic anything unless you're looking to impress someone you're trying to pick up in the super market. Fair Trade for sure. In fact fair trade is very important in areas such as coffee, tea, sugar and chocolate because of the exploitive (nice word for slavery) practices used by many of the producers of name brand items. I suppose the same can be said for many clothing and sporting goods manufacturers.

However, if you asked your average person on the street if organic foods are better, you would find that just about everyone would say yes of course it is. Then when you ask them why they believe it is better, many people would struggle to give an authoritative answer.

I believe the main reasons people buy anything organic are;

- It's trendy
- Unfounded ideals
- They believe it's healthier

The fact is, just because something has been produced organically, does not mean it is free from pesticides and additives etc... It just means they use a lot less. For example, a 2003 study by the Canadian Food Inspection agency found that 25% of organic food contains pesticide residue. To be certified as organic, you are not allowed to use synthetic pesticides but you are allowed to use certain plant derived pesticides such as rotenone which is highly toxic to fish and causes Parkinson’s Disease when injected into rats.

In the end I believe most farming will be organic just as it once was simply because the cost of fertilisers and other artificial additives will prove too high to maintain a commercially viable farm. The problem with everyone going organic is that it produces a 20% smaller yield on average so it requires more land cleared to produce.
posted by Man_in_staysis at 7:25 PM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

This CNN Money article might be interesting to you. It unfortunately doesn't mention coffee, but it is similar to your question of which organic foods are most worth the money (according to the article's authors). Remember that coffee beans are somewhat processed, which involves washing, roasting, etc. so it's much different than getting non-organic strawberries that often have to get sprayed just to keep them in edible condition by the time they get to the store.
posted by belau at 7:38 PM on February 9, 2009

If you're drinking a lot of coffee, I would certainly spend that extra bucks to buy organic. I wanted to provide a bit more information that I just saw in a book called "Skinny Bitch'. Yes, I understand that it sounds like one of those books that sells fear, and to an extent it does, but I checked on some of the information and it is true. There's a section about chemical additives in our foods that I found interesting. (If you want to go read just that section in a book store, it's the first chapter, 'Give it up'.
posted by icollectpurses at 7:56 PM on February 9, 2009

Well if you buy organic you won't have to worry about chemicals in your coffee at all. For inexpensive, good, organic, fair trade coffee check out Dean's Beans. Best coffee company ever.
posted by starfish at 8:20 PM on February 9, 2009

Organic coffee's main benefit is for the environment and the health of the people raising the plants and handling the berries. Considering coffee comes from the seeds in a berry, and those seeds (we call them "beans") get roasted to fairly high temperatures. There's not likely to be much pesticide residue, since it'd be more likely to be on the surface of the plant. There may be more antioxidants in the organic coffees, though, because plants without pesticides generally produce more because some antioxidants are produced in response to pests as a natural defense. However, it's not even clear if antioxidants are that helpful against cancer, or if the ones in coffee are even as effective as the ones that exist in fruits and vegetables.

I think it's worth it when you can afford it, but I'm an environmentalist. However, shade grown is probably an even better choice, because that means the plants are grown without clearing out rain forests or taking away land that could be used to grown other foods.

However, I tend not to buy organic coffee most of the time, because I don't have that much disposable income because I can only work in the summer. It may sound hypocritical, but I'm only describing the ideal. I doubt there's any personal health consequences. I will buy fair trade, organic coffee when I find a good deal or when I'm in the mood for something special, which is about once every month or two.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:24 PM on February 9, 2009 [3 favorites]

The process of roasting the coffee brings the beans to something like 460F. The process produces a lot of smoke (especially the darker roasts). The beans lose something like 20 percent of their mass during the roast. I'm going to guess that pesticide residue is pretty volatile and is almost completely eliminated during the roast as well.
posted by fatllama at 12:54 AM on February 10, 2009

You don't always buy organic because it's better for you.
posted by Iteki at 3:01 AM on February 10, 2009

The coffee itself is not going to be all that noticably better nor healtier.

The growing conditions on the other hand are a world apart. I got my nickname working with coffee growers in the mountains of the state of Veracruz, Mexico. We were working on sustainable growing techniques, which included organic methods, "shade growing", actual shade growing in the jungle, and other techniques which did less harm to the environment and meant that the fields could be productive for generations rather than a few years. Additionally, there was the organic vs. inorganic processing plants. The "traditional" plants dumped their effluent directly into streams, while the organics were a closed system, cleaning and reusing the water from the processing and using byproducts for fertilizers and fuels.

The problem comes with the definitions and oversite. Starbucks for instance used to ( don't know if they still do this) certify a grower as "organic" based on a single visit to the farm. Once orders came in a producer would often switch back to nasty methods in order to keep up with the high demand that Starbucks demanded of their suppliers. Eventually the fields would peter out and Starbucks would move on.

Then there is the "shade grown" coffee. While better than traditional, most shade grown is grown under taller, special trees that are actually a legume, which means that these trees fix nitrogen for the nitrogen sucking coffee bushes. The shade makes the beans ripen slower, but richer. In this method the farmer can use less expensive and environmentally damaging fertilizers for a higher quality product. True shade growing, though rare, is done among natural trees (not in pure uncleared virgin rainforest as manufacturers would like you to believe however). The cherries ripen at their own pace and picked individually, there is no fertilizer, no irrigation or no mountainside terracing (and no mountainside erosion). Few trees are cleared and there is definitely no pesticide. So how can you know if you are getting truly organic or truly forrest shade grown? You have to do some careful research. It also helps if you live in Europe, because they don't sell the best stuff to North America. If it is "certified" as shade grown, then that at least is a start. Certified organics need to be certified by people who actually check.

Then you get your fair trade standards, which I won't even go into here, but suffice to say that, like organics, if you get a trustworthy and honest source and certifier, is worth the small expense.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:39 AM on February 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

There is quite a bit of corruption in the Organic Certification process, late in the book God in a Cup touches on some of the problems in ethiopia, as well as central america with corruption from Cooperatives (even fair trade ones!).

That said, one of the best ways to get assuredly good beans (good to taste and good for the planet, AND good for the economic standard for farmers, importers, and everyone else along the chain) is to get a Direct Trade coffee from a place like Counter Culture or Stumptown Coffee. Many coffees that companies like that offer are not certified organic, but it also doesn't mean that they're just dumping DDT and Agent Orange all over the coffee before it reaches Central America, its really common for a farm to either be 100% organic, or very, very close to that but not be able to afford the certification. Best way to know is to buy beans from a place like CC or ST and straight up ask what the growing practices are.

Also, on a side note, Fair Trade is like minimum's a great starting point and gives Collectives (and only collectives, not individual farms) a great safety net....BUT they only get paid a set rate, and it is sometimes even below the commodity level. For every Fair Trade sticker that goes on a bag of coffee, the coffee company thats roasting it has to pay 20 cents JUST for the sticker, and i'm fairly certain about 19 cents of that goes back into marketing for the Fair Trade brand. You should check out the book God in a Cup and search for the section on the Brumas collective just to see how fucked up that system is.

Unfortunately with all these things being certified/noncertified, it's turned into a game where you need to educate yourself really specifically about the coffee (or anything else) you want to consume. That said, there are very environmentally responsible farms that are not Certified organic, and are not Fair Trade...
posted by furnace.heart at 6:46 AM on February 10, 2009

....and causes Parkinson’s Disease when injected into rats.

Rodents do not get Parkinson's Disease, unfortunately for humanity.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:32 AM on February 10, 2009

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