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Instant Coffee: a look behind this industry

Immerse yourself in the Instant Coffee production through the lenses of Asha Kiran, former worker at an Instant Coffee production in India.

Picture of the chemical engineer Asha
Asha Kiran

We have interviewed Asha Kiran, a chemical engineer with a strong sense of food. With more than 13 years of hands-on experience in the processing industry, her expertise spans various sectors, including food & ingredients, pharmaceuticals, and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). Throughout her career, her primary focus has revolved around research and development in the pursuit of creating products, with a special emphasis on minimal processing. One notable milestone in her journey has been the development of the instant coffee process, which invoked her perspective on unlocking the instant coffee industry's sustainability.

What is instant coffee?

Instant coffee is an extensively processed product, requiring a series of intricate steps to go from coffee beans to your cup.

This process involves:

  • Roasting the beans,

  • Grinding the bean,

  • Extracting coffee at elevated temperatures and pressures,

  • Concentration through filtration, evaporation, flavour distillation,

  • Spray or freeze drying.

Is instant coffee sustainable?

When it comes to instant coffee, there is the common belief that it is sustainable because there is no waste after drinking the cup of coffee. While, when brewing or using a coffee machine, we are left with spent coffee grounds. However, this does not mean that because at a consumer level we see no waste produced after drinking coffee, that there is no waste at all. Looking into its production, making instant coffee is an energy-intensive process, with significant waste generated from the coffee grounds after extraction.

The production of instant coffee is highly unsustainable and serves as an example of the environmental impact driven by consumer convenience. A life cycle assessment (LCA) study found that a 1-deciliter cup of spray-dried soluble coffee results in approximately 1 MJ of primary non-renewable energy consumption, 0.07 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions, and 3 to 10 Liters of non-turbined water use, depending on coffee cultivation practices.

However, different studies show that traditional instant coffee has the lowest carbon footprint per cup compared to other. Regardless of the sustainable claims, there is also the issue of whether instant coffee is actually good for your health or not. Let's look into that.

Is instant coffee bad for you?

Many businesses use sweeteners, oils, and other chemicals to mitigate the bitterness of instant coffee. Or, on occasion, to create a variety of flavoured coffees ready on the go. However, if you consume instant coffee on a frequent basis, this may be harmful to your health.

Sugars in instant coffee may cause weight gain or blood sugar spikes, resulting in energy crashes and cravings. Palm oil, another popular ingredient, is a type of saturated fat that, among other things, can raise the risk of heart disease, and if you drink instant coffee every day, it quickly adds up.

A sustainable and nutritional input

According to Asha, consumer goods companies are taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint by using spent coffee grounds as biofuel for heating during the spray drying process. However, this method has its limitations in terms of the volume of residue generated and its applicability within the company. Another approach could open doors for small-scale producers and other industries.

Almost 50 % of the worldwide coffee production is processed for soluble coffee preparation, generating approximately 6 million tons of spent coffee grounds annually, states Asha. Additionally, coffee silver skin, a delicate outer layer of green coffee beans produced during roasting, adds to this resource.

These residues boost intriguing functional properties, including water and oil retention, emulsion capabilities, stability, and antioxidant potential, paving the way for their reintegration into various biotechnological processes. These by-products can serve multiple purposes, such as acting as preservatives in food formulations, as natural sources of antioxidants for use in food and pharmaceutical products, or as raw materials to craft innovative functional ingredients for the food industry. Consequently, both spent coffee grounds and coffee silver skin can provide value to the industry and offer potential health benefits to consumers. This is where Connecting Grounds comes in the picture.

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