Cultivated coffee in laboratories: new frontiers of food technology!


The well-known Finnish research institute VTT has developed and studied an alternative form of coffee, believing that their product would avoid many of the environmental problems associated with the mass production of this one of the most consumed beverages in the world.

Technically, the production process is based on an existing and established technology: the operation of the conventional bioreactor. The idea that coffee cells could be used to make coffee had already been presented in the 1970s.
The institute produced coffee using the same principles of cellular agriculture used to produce lab-grown meat (which does not involve slaughtering livestock and which last year was approved for sale for the first time in the world by Singapore authorities). In the process, cell cultures floating in nutrient-filled bioreactors are used to produce various animal and plant products.

The work was initiated by starting coffee cell cultures, establishing cell lines in the laboratory and transferring them to bioreactors for biomass production. After the biomass analysis, a roasting process was developed and the new coffee was finally evaluated by a sensory panel developed by the same institute.

The first batches produced by VTT in a laboratory in Finland have the smell of conventional coffee but compared to regular coffee, cellular coffee retains a less bitter taste: this could be due to a caffeine content.

This also makes the fruity flavor less noticeable in the lab-made powder.

For the Finnish people, one of the main coffee-consuming communities in the world, coffee is more evidently a sustainable problematic product: first of all because the increase in global temperatures is making existing plantations less productive. This pushes farmers to always free up areas larger than the rainforest  in order to obtain new crops and therefore meet the constant demand of the market.
Secondly, there is the problem of transport and the use of fossil fuels for the logistics of moving the product around the world.
The VTT Institute estimates that it will take at least four years before laboratory-grown coffee obtains regulatory approval and commercial support to allow it to establish itself on the market like the conventional one.

At the same time, the reserahcer have developed advantageous awareness regarding this product: water footprint of cellular coffee in bioreactor, for example, is much lower than that necessary for the maintenance of cultivation fields.

This project is considered part of the overall effort to develop the biotechnological production of everyday and family goods that are conventionally produced by agriculture. For this, it uses different hosts, such as microbes, but also plant cells.

Plant cell growth and optimization of this process depends on downstream processing and product formulation, along with regulatory approval and market introduction. These steps will lead in the future to the development of a real product inserted in the coffee world market.

Cellular agriculture is one of the roads leading to more sustainable food production in the future. The impact of these production methods may grow thanks to companies like VTT who are willing to rethink the production of food ingredients and start promoting unconventional commercial applications.

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