April 23, 2008
You know the type. They skip the coffee aisle and avert their eyes when passing the espresso machine. Immune to a hazelnut latte's tempting scent, they're your caffeine-wary customers. But what if it turned out coffee was healthy? That one cup delivered more antioxidants than green tea or red wine? That maybe, just maybe, coffee could help prevent cancer? Would it change their minds?
Loretta Zapp, CEO of Austin, Texas-based Applied Food Science, is holding the goods and asking the same questions. With the serendipity that often accompanies scientific discoveries, Zapp and her staff stumbled upon coffee's medicinal payload while studying green tea's cancer-fighting polyphenols, the same antioxidants found in coffee beans.
"We wondered, how come no one ever talks about coffee and antioxidants?" she says. "It turns out the polyphenols are destroyed when coffee beans are roasted at 500 degrees—the heat needed to produce roasted coffee. We thought, if we could preserve the antioxidants, keep them present through that process, wouldn't that be terrific?"
Nearly two years later, Zapp holds the patent on a processing technique she says retains coffee's natural antioxidants without changing its flavor. Animal tests conducted at her company suggest that, much like green tea, the resulting antioxidant-rich brew helps prevent skin tumors in addition to quenching dangerous free radicals. Her modification of the existing coffee roasting process "is so simple, it's hard to talk about without giving it away," says Zapp, but it works with any bean and any roast, and "at the end of the process, it's still 100 percent coffee."
Now she just has to sell it.
"We are a technology company—we're certainly not coffee marketers," says Zapp, who's shopping for partners to license her technology and apply it to their own roasting processes. Big companies, like Nestlé S.A., Proctor & Gamble and Kraft Foods, are interested, she says. They've even reproduced her lab results—but are hung up on the marketing hurdle.
So how do you sell a healthy cup of coffee?
Without appearing to speak out of both sides of your mouth, says coffee industry expert Dan Cox, president of Coffee Industries in Burlington, Vt. "For years, the big three coffee companies have been telling everyone their coffee is the best, whether it's true or not," he says. Pitching a new, healthy coffee now would imply their previous products were inferior, or worse, unsafe. "They won't be believable—it would be like tobacco companies saying, 'We don't alter nicotine levels.'"
That leaves the marketing experiment to independent specialty roasters with loyal customer bases—the Boyd's Coffee, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Starbucks Corp. of the industry. "These are all companies that play in the $75 million-$250 million [range] in sales," says Cox. "They're companies that, number one, have been around for a while, and number two, have a lot of direct consumer contact." If the right company licenses Zapp's technology, he adds, customers will believe in it and the company will have a coffee buzz all the way to the bank.
But independent coffee roasters are an ornery lot. Having built fortunes on distinctive coffee flavor, few are willing to change their formulas or roasting processes, even for believable health benefits.
"If it would greatly affect roast time, I have hesitations about it," says Christy Thorns, coffee buyer and roastmaster for Boulder, Colo.-based Allegro Coffee. Thorns, responsible for maintaining the company's coffee roasting standards, says even slightly over-roasting coffee beans bakes out flavor and burns off delicate aromas. "You really need to control time and temperature. Any change in roasting would be a huge issue."
That's no surprise, Cox says. "Roasters are going to be very cautions with this," he says, especially when they hear the words processing and handling. "They're going to say, what the hell does that mean? Do you roast it higher? Roast it slower? Roast it lower?" Even if roasters accept Zapp's premise, they'll insist on proving it to themselves, he says, because if it tastes bad, they're not interested—period.
If flavor is king in the coffee industry, cost is queen. "Price might be a concern—all capital expenditures are," says Thorns, adding that it's a touchy subject for specialty roasters. "Roasters don't make the same margin that retailers do." Although Zapp says her technique requires no new equipment and adds little cost to the final product, she'll have to prove it to a skeptical audience.
Cost to consumers is less an issue. Whether or not coffee drinkers are willing to pay for a healthy cup of coffee hinges more on their understanding of antioxidants than on their wallets. Concerned consumers are already paying 10 percent to 15 percent more for organic and fair trade coffees and 5 percent more for decaffeinated varieties. "I would think that healthy coffee might also draw a small percent of consumers—probably about 5 percent," Thorns says.
The trick is persuading them antioxidants are important.
Unlike tea, coffee comes with baggage. "Certain teas have a perception, right or wrong, that they tend to be healthy—certainly green tea," Cox says. When pressed, consumers have a hard time explaining exactly what's so healthy about tea, but it doesn't disturb them. On the other hand, he says, "there's a public perception that coffee's not overly bad or overly good—it is what it is."
The company that runs with Zapp's technology must convince customers that antioxidants are important and that it can prove the coffee is loaded with them, Cox says. "I'd push the fact that this is new technology. We're a technology-driven culture—people love it."
Zapp remains hopeful that the right company can overcome coffee's bad rap and get to what's really important: "You can buy your morning coffee, you don't have to change your habits, but you're getting 250 mg of antioxidants in one cup," she says. That compares with 60 to 125 mg of polyphenols in a 4-ounce cup of green tea or 210 mg in a 5-ounce glass of red wine.
"Whoever would have thought red wine was healthy?" says Zapp. "I think that if you have a good marketing group, it's an educational message that can be delivered."
Catherine Monahan is a freelance writer and editor in Lafayette, Colo. She may be reached at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 40-41
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 40
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 10/p. 41
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