About three or four weeks ago I started receiving calls from journalists reporting on the latest fad plaguing the coffee industry, called “Bulletproof Coffee.” Promoters of the Bulletproof brand of lifestyle products claim that buying (I jest not) “bioactively rich” coffee and mixing it with butter offers vague health benefits including, “energiz[ing] your mind and body,” while asserting that “bad coffee makes you weak.” The Bulletproof Coffee offering seems entertaining but harmless enough, particularly when compared to other more insidious gimmicks like kopi luwak, green coffee diets and multi-level marketing schemes featuring other fungi, herbs and detritus misleadingly marketed as coffee, which unlike this one may do real environmental or health damage while separating fools from their money. So why has this latest caffeinated reincarnation of the fountain of youth concept gaining any attention from reputable media whatsoever?
The answer is simple: fear sells. P.T. Barnum-like marketing tactics that have hand-picked a some proven truths, a selection of half-truths and a few convenient but baseless assumptions molded together into a clever fear-based campaign. The argument is, essentially: 1) most coffee contains mold (true!), 2) mold will kill you (maybe), 3) our coffee has less mold than other your current provider (possible but doubtful), therefore, 4) buy our coffee or you will die. QED? A rational consumer surely sees through such puffery but perhaps not today’s anti-vaccine crowd and others whose dedication to misguided principles and affluence has afforded them the divine ability to will beliefs into existence, despite what facts may conclusively prove otherwise.
Bulletproof Coffee claim: Is there mold in coffee?
The technical answer is “yes.” You will find mold in most products that originate from or come into contact with soil, including just about everything that humans eat. Coffee is no exception. Is the mold in coffee a real threat to your health? The evidence points to an overwhelming “no.”
The quantity of mold and the appropriately ominous-sounding Ochratoxin A (OTA for short) found in coffee is low, particularly in comparison to other food products like meats, cereals, gains, spices and by extension any foodstuff made from those items (e.g. everything we eat). Although the coffee marketing website cites a study that found “91.7% of green coffee was contaminated,” it fails to similarly mention that the samples (all from one origin) tested in this one study, “were contaminated with the toxin at levels ranging from 0.2 to 7.3microg kg(-1) [.2 – 7.3 PPB]” or the study’s ultimate conclusion, that “all positive samples showed OTA levels below the limit suggested by the European Union (8 microg kg(-1)). [8 PPB]” For purposes of illustration, the present USDA mycotoxin guideline specified for raw peanuts is not to exceed 15 PPB and 20 PPB in other food, somewhere between 2 and 100 times the concentration found in the referenced study. A quick search of the same NIH medical publication database found about 3,000 articles relating to Ochratoxin A — various forms of identifying it and studies of just about every food product you can imagine, any of which could be similarly taken out of context as an imminent health threat. As the writer of this other article on the same subject astutely points out, there could just as easily have been a “Bulletproof raisin” craze, had that been the marketers’ focus.
Consider the USDA’s portrayal of mycotoxin threat for consumers : “For the consumer, a food safety concern is potential exposure to mycotoxins through consumption of food from contaminated crops, which can produce acute and/or long-term health problems.” “Although lethal cases are uncommon, acute illnesses from mycotoxins, particularly aflatoxins (aflatoxicosis), have been reported from many parts of the world, usually in developing countries. Some notable outbreaks include the deaths of 3 Taiwanese in 1967, and the deaths of more than 100 people in Northwest India in 1974.” Serious potential heath impact, definitely, but an eminent danger at your favorite coffee shop in Los Angeles c.2015? Absolutely not.
If you happen to find yourself in a coffee growing country of Africa, Central or South America (such as the touted study’s author was in Brazil) or low-value, non-traditional consuming market of the Middle East or Eastern Europe… maybe a deep inland Chinese city where everyone around you is drinking tea, there’s a small chance that you might come across something moldy that can make you sick or worse, “de-energize your mind” but it’s extremely unlikely in a wealthy coffee consuming market like the United States, Japan or Western Europe. In the places where coffee is grown commercially, it is a cash crop and high-value export. All of the best coffees are exported to paying consumers, which is why it is very difficult to find a decent cup of coffee when you’re in one of those countries (I have been in many). What is served locally in typical coffee producing nations is, more often than not, only what cannot be sold abroad because of defects from processing or storage like mold.
More important for your longterm health: don’t believe a company that stands to benefit financially from dubious health claims.
It is entertainingly ironic, however, that this purveyor of new age wisdom has found itself on the unhealthy end of the controversial California Prop. 65 law that asserts customers must be warned all baked items, like bread or coffee, display this warning:
It seems that everything is more dangerous in California, except those things that really are a public health threat, until there is money to be made.