2 Apr 2017

Cascara Banned in the EU?

What is a novel food and why can we suddenly not drink cascara anymore?

A lot of people have read this article "Is cascara actually banned? Mixed messages in The EU" by Perfect Daily Grind the last couple of days, which was probably inspired by the video James Hoffmann of Square Mile posted recently.

The article is quite short, slightly confusing and arguably incomplete causing some misinterpretation of what is actually going on with cascara in the EU. As someone working in coffee as head of quality, which not only includes quality control of the products, but also the food safety aspect, I wanted to give some background and further information on the concept of novel food and how it is linked to the use of cascara.

what is a novel food?

The whole idea is to keep people safe and not bring anything to the food market that could be harmful or even deadly to humans, literally food safety. For the EU this is regulated through the European Commission. A novel food is a food  is a food that has:
"not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU prior to 1997, when the first Regulation on novel food came into force" link
A novel food can be something that is newly developed, a food that is produced using new technologies or food that is traditionally eaten outside of the EU. 

Examples of novel foods that have recently been authorised for human consumption are chia seeds and stevia.

The EU has a Novel Food Catalogue. This lists products that are subject to the Novel Food Regulation and serves as a means to know whether a product needs authorisation from the EU to be used for human consumption. 

It is in this catalogue where we find the novel food status of cascara.

screenshot Novel Food Catalogue

So what does this statement mean?

The first time you read this statement you might think, so it's approved! However the paragraph at the bottom is crucial:

"The use of dried berries of Coffea sp in tea (coffee cherry tea) is novel. [...] It is also known as cascara [...]"
This last sentence means that cascara is not authorised to be used for human consumption. 
Although the product 'coffee' is approved, the new use of making tea out of the cherries, is novel and thus needs to be authorised.
To get authorised, companies must apply to an EU Member State, presenting scientific information and a safety assessment that shows that the product is safe. The authority then decides if an additional assessment by the European Food Safety Authority is necessary. 
The national authority can then allow the product if the European Commission and other EU countries do not object.

What does authorisation mean?

Applying for authorisation consists of scientific information and a safety assessment, which entails a product specification (levels of sugar, protein, salt, etc), a full toxin screening, a full microbiological screening, and a safety assessment where you have to try to prove that people who have consumed the product have not had any health problems due to this particular product. Not only is this very expensive, but the minimum trajectory of an application is 1.5 years. Yes, you read that correctly 1.5 years.

There is a simplified procedure called notification, where you have to establish that the novel food is very similar or has a "substantial equivalence" to an already authorised novel food. Why this is probably not enough for cascara is the fact that although it is also a coffee product, the use is completely different. Where roasting takes away a lot of risks -because of extended exposure to high heat-, the infusion of the dried cherry may not. Infusions especially under 100 degrees Celsius are tricky, food safety-wise, because it does not kill off certain risks. And there are probably different risks present when creating a syrup, or soda, or something different. New uses may require new authorisations or notifications. However it is something that is worth exploring.

So is cascara banned?

Perfect Daily Grind answers this question incorrectly:

"As the European Commission's website says, "it is recommended to check with the national competent authorities". But if they do claim that Novel Food Regulations are the issue, feel free to show them this and ask for further clarification. We'd all appreciate it!"

Now, why is this incorrect? 

As Perfect Daily Grind correctly states, even if cascara were to be approved as a novel food, national bodies might still ban it. This because EU Members still have the sovereignty to decide if a certain food should or should not be allowed. However, cascara as a whole is not authorised. An application for approval has not been submitted yet. And so there is no point to check with your national competent authorities. Cascara is currently not allowed to be used for human consumption. So if you are questioning if you should take if off of your menu? Yes, you should. 

So if it's banned, why have we been drinking it?

Good question. As coffee husks are not banned from trading -because of low, low grade coffee, which often contains some husks or dried cherries- we have been able to buy and sell cascara without national or international authorities stepping in. However, more recently there has been an increase of interest from these authorities for coffee roasters and cascara. This is probably due to the fact that coffee has become increasingly popular. Additionally, as stated in James' video, a Panamese company has been contacting national authorities about cascara, which might have set off the interest of this product in the market. 

When can we drink cascara again? A bright light in the distance?

Who knows? Fact is, an application for authorisation has not been made yet. It is extremely costly and takes a lot of time to get a product through the bureaucratic mill. There are not a lot of companies that catch enough revenue out of cascara to make this investment. The good news is that it might get a little easier in 2018, when we switch from the regulation EC 258/97 to EC 2015/2283. 
Under this new legislation other country traditional foods have a slightly more lenient regulation, where full reports and scopes are not necessary. All that is needed -and this is still hard- is proof that this food has been used in this way for a long time in an other country, and nobody experienced any health problems due to this product.
As the popularity of cascara increases, hopefully there are companies out there that will jump through this hoop for all the consumers and other companies out there.

In the mean time, we might have to be careful with what we serve. Also with the coffee flower infusions that have been popping up everywhere.

5 Dec 2016

The Christmas Coffee Gift Guide 2016

Christmas time! But what should you get for that coffee loving geek in your circle of friends or family? Below some ideas for gifts that any coffee lover would like to receive.

Five Elephant 
 Coffee EU8-50
Coffee, it's always a good idea. Most roasters or coffee subscriptions have some awesome coffee beans on sale during Christmas.

Any good artisan coffee roaster will do, so go and find your local coffee roaster, dealing in the lovely product of specialty coffee and buy some beans.
Try not to buy too long in advance, as coffee beans are better when freshly roasted.

If you are looking online, these are some awesome options for you.

15 Nov 2016

How to Prepare for Taking the Q Arabica Coffee Grading Exam

Me (front row in the brown apron) and my fellow Q graders
When I started working at a green coffee sourcing company as their cupper, they requested I take the Q grader's exam for Arabica coffee. I had heard of it before, but had never really looked into it. Al I had heard was that it was an exam to test your sensory skills in coffee tasting and that it was quite difficult to pass.

The Q grader's exam is part of the Coffee Quality Institute and it meant to create a universally shared language for coffee tasters. It is an internationally recognised certification grading and cupping calibration. Meaning that all people that passed the Q grading exam will give a calibrated score for the same coffee. 

I read up a little on the test that would be taken, but mistakenly saw it as a course, not necessarily an exam. So when I walked into the cafe in Paris during a cold February day, I was surprised to find everybody there had been practising at home for weeks. I had read up a little bit, but I hadn't created my own training program beforehand. I also quite quickly learnt that the 'course' part of the exam mostly existed of practising the exam. Not an actual educational training session. So if you failed a practise exam, there really was no time to understand why you failed and to really learn how to improve yourself before the actual exam will take place.

This freaked me out quite a bit, especially as the course is quite expensive. I did not want to fail and let my boss, who paid for everything, down. So the first three days in which we practised the courses I tried to learn as much as I could. At night I would practise in my Airbnb and think of strategic ways to pass the exams that I had trouble with during the day.

I have to say, going through all the exams in the following days, must have been some of the most nerve recking days in my life.

And...it paid off. I passed with flying colours. So what did I do to pass the infamous sensory exam, or the sample roast identification exam? In this blog you can read the tips I wished I had had before I took the Q grading exam per exam category.

18 Aug 2016

Coffee Crawl Leiden: Where to Drink Coffee in Leiden

People from Amsterdam never want to travel outside the capitol of the Netherlands. Everything you need is at a palm's reach. Although the Netherlands is a small, tiny country, everything outside of the city centre is far-far-away land for the Amsterdammers. But there are a lot of amazing cities and coffee spots to see all across the country. And so friend 'B' and I decided to put on our walking boots and 'travel'; take the trains and discover all the lovely coffee spots outside of our hometown. 

Finally, after months of trying -I don't exaggerate, first it was the Reco symposium, then a sick pet, a sick human and some inconvenient calendar mix up- we made it to Leiden. Leiden, a city in South Holland, holds the oldest university of the country. The old centre is beautiful with canals, small courtyards and multiple monumental buildings. But we weren't there for all that. We wanted coffee.

see map

17 Jul 2016

Restaurants Serving Specialty Coffee in Amsterdam

Restaurants serving specialty coffee

We have all experienced it. One night you go out, with your friends or family. You go to this well recommended restaurant. The service is friendly, the food is tasty. You talk and laugh. Perhaps take some pictures of nicely plated food to put on social media. And then you order coffee after. And if you're lucky, you get a Nespresso capsule. If you are unlucky, you get some dark roasted, robusta blended drink that maybe if you quench your eyes kind of falls into the category of an espresso, made from beans that were pre-ground at a certain time in history on a machine that has not been cleaned properly since it was installed. What a way to finish a meal.

1 May 2016

The Genetic Diversity of Yeasts in Coffee Processing

Yeast. It's used for many, many things. Including fermentation in wine, cacao and coffee. It's the distinguishing element between grape juice and wine. It is part of the process of creating alcohol, but also has a huge influence on the flavour. Using starter cultures of yeast have been common in the wine industry for a very long time and this is one of the reasons all vineyard-yeast strains are so similar.

Coffee and cacao farmers do not use starter cultures, but often rely on their local surroundings. So interestingly enough, although the coffee tree is very homogeneous as most plants around the world share the same origin, the yeasts found in the green bean end product differ completely.
At least this is what Aimée Dudley of the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute and Justin Fay of the University of Washington found. They were even able to use DNA sequences of the yeast strains to determine origin. 

According to the researchers this diversity of coffee yeasts opens up the possibility to create new flavours of coffee, by using a yeast from a certain region, in the fermentation process in a different location. Who knows what this would taste like?

As a coffee cupper and q grader myself, this sounds very interesting. At the same time my mind immediately flew to one of the most thought provoking and inspiring Reco talks of Gothenburg on what lessons coffee can draw from the 'natural wine' movement.

Are starting yeasts and yeasts for sale really something we want to invest in? Or would we be stepping away from a product we love. If we start adding yeasts from the Panama Geisha from Esmeralda to all coffees from all over the world, we might in theory create more floral and perfumed coffees, but we might also be destroying local yeasts and culture that have been in use for centuries.

What do you guys think? Am I too conservative? 

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