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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

'Coffee-less Coffee' Startup Scores Interest from Investors

Synthetic coffee is one example of the movement to develop lab-created foods that have less of an environmental impact — and investors are taking notice.

We all know coffee is a hot topic and a critical food group for many. People have their favorite brews and favorite fixings, and changes are often not well received.

Some companies are determined to make a better, more sustainable morning cup. More than 60 percent of Americans choose coffee as a daily beverage, selecting it over water.  Sadly, though, this mainstay drink is both a victim of and contributor to environmental problems, forcing some entrepreneurs to get creative.

Compound Foods founder and CEO Maricel Saenz, herself a coffee-lover, is developing a brew without beans by extracting molecules. The company, founded in 2020, recently received $4.5 million in seed money, bringing its current total funding to $5.3 million.

The goal is to create a beverage that smells and tastes like coffee using less water and more sustainable ingredients. The company is still tinkering with the formula and has said it would like to release a product by the end of the year. Another aim is to recreate varietals with flavors from different parts of the world, such as Brazil and Costa Rica. Coffee aficionados have been recruited to assist with the technology and to join the company’s marketing, product and business teams.

Synthetic coffee is only one example of a movement to develop lab-grown and molecular foods that could be healthier, have less of an environmental impact and be more sustainable for the long time. These have included cultured-meat products, like Memphis Meats. The same goes for Kentucky Fried Chicken’s recent efforts to grow chicken nuggets in a lab. And for dessert, a German company is developing a lab-cultured alternative to chocolate as that industry also has its own impact on people and the planet.

Problems facing the coffee industry include a shortage of land for growers and the large quantities of water needed for production. 

“Temperatures are rising and combined with erratic rains are leading to lower crop yield,” Saenz recently told TechCrunch. “The same crop can’t grow in the same place anymore, or it will be a lower quality product. Farmers in Costa Rica are having to sell their land or go higher up the mountain. Experts predict that 50 percent of farmland will be unsuitable in the next couple of decades.”  

Climate change is already having a measurable impact on the coffee-growing industry, and the effects are expected to get much worse in the coming decades,” Patrick Grubbs wrote on TriplePundit in 2019. A host of worsening environmental problems threaten the continued production needed to supply the 2.25 billion cups that people rely on daily.

Coffee is also the fifth-most polluting crop when looking at its entire value chain. That one cup that starts people’s days has its own massive need for resources — 140 liters of water are needed along the crop’s value chain to create that morning cup, according to some estimates.

“The global coffee trade is one of the largest agricultural trades, both in terms of volume and money,” wrote 3p's Patrick Grubbs. “The sheer amount of coffee being produced exacts a heavy toll on the environment and society, from Colombia to Ethiopia.”

Compound Foods is not alone in the coffee-alternative universe. Food scientist Jarret Stopforth and partner Andy Kleitsch of Atomo Coffee say they have broken down all the compounds in coffee to determine their contribution to java’s taste and smell. 

Utilizing a proprietary process, Atomo rebuilt a brew using plants with similar elements to traditional Joe, such as fruits and plants with seeds similar to coffee beans that could be roasted, ground and brewed. The company sought ingredients from commercially harvested plants, allowing the company to upcycle materials that would otherwise be wasted. The resulting product tastes better than what's made from beans, some argue, because in the development process, Atomo was able to cut back on the acidity and bitterness that discourage many people from partaking. 

While the companies continue to refine the formula for molecular coffee, Saenz said she does not intend to compete with growers. “We love coffee and know the farmers, and we are providing an alternative solution,” she said.

Image credit: Brigitte Tohm/Unsplash

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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