What if you could temper the crazy blood sugar spike you get from eating a chocolate chip muffin...with an ingredient baked into the muffin? And what if that ingredient was not only something totally innocuous but also something you consume every day? What if it's coffee, the same stuff you swill for your morning buzz?
Dr. Daniel Perlman, senior scientist at Brandeis University specializing in functional foods (he was on the team that invented SmartBalance spreads), has done just that by creating coffee flour.
It started one morning three years ago when he was drinking his usual morning cup of coffee and began thinking critically about the health halo surrounding coffee beans: Did they actually pack a huge antioxidant punch? He brought some green beans (a.k.a. coffee beans that have not yet been roasted) and roasted beans to the lab to see if, and how, roasting affects caffeine and antioxidant properties.
Turns out: "Roasting destroys the antioxidants," says Perlman. "The darker the roast, the less residual antioxidant you have. The original green coffee bean has the most." That's why dietary supplements selling coffee extracts draw from the green beans. In case you're wondering, Copenhagen-style light roasts have maybe twice the antioxidant content as French and Italian dark roasts. In fact, Perlman notes, "French and Italian dark roast has almost no antioxidant left." To save you the science lesson, the coffee flour can help temper the sugar high of the sweet pastries it's in. It's antioxidant-rich and contains a compound that slows the normally super-fast absorption of sugar in your body. But all that good stuff in coffee is damaged by the intense heat of roasting the beans at 425 to 450°F temperatures.
"What if you could treat the coffee beans in a way to preserve the beneficial antioxidants?" he asked, gearing up for a series of tests with support from the university and the New England Coffee Company.
There are reasons we don't just grind green coffee beans. First of all, Perlman explains, it's not pleasant: "It's a tough little nut that's difficult to grind in a way that doesn't make it gritty when you eat or drink it." Not to mention green beans taste kind of unappealing raw and, being a raw product that is shipped all over the world, they run the risk of contamination from bacteria and mold spores. You would have to cook the beans at least enough to disinfect them.
Instead of roasting at 425 to 450° Fahrenheit, Perlman tried roasting the green beans around 300°F—just long enough to reduce the moisture content, sanitize them, and drive off some of the undesirable flavors. Drier beans were also easier to mill.
The result? Par-baked coffee flour, which can be baked into everything from bread and muffins to cookies that contains approximately 100 percent of its original antioxidant content. (As a caveat for those thinking of trying this at home, the lab is also milling the par-baked beans in supremely cold conditions to prevent any further oxidation.)
As for the taste, Perlman says it's surprisingly not coffee like—with none of the potent bitter caramel aroma that a fresh cuppa wakes you up with in the morning. Instead, "It has a very nice golden color, like wheat, and a mild nutty flavor." The mildness means it can bolster everything from breads to spreads, and Perlman's hope is that bakery products on board with the flour can swap out five to 10 percent of the white or wheat flour they already use for the coffee version. (A pastry or bread can't be made with 100 percent coffee flour, which contains no gluten, because of potentially seismic shifts in texture and flavor.)
But so far he's baked vanilla muffins and Tuscan white bread, and hopes to test out some new combinations soon, now that the patent for coffee flour was issued in mid-December 2015. Nut butters, probably, and definitely hummus.
Though no one has licensed the technology just yet, Perlman, who has over 100 patents to his name, is looking for potential commercial producers for the product. In his ideal situation, he'd see coffee flour on supermarket shelves alongside other specialty flours—like any of Bob's Red Mill products, near oat, millet, and sorghum flour. It would also entail a world where your morning muffin is a "boost muffin," where your coffee flour-laden breakfast delivers your sugar fix, negates that sugar fix, and gives you your jolt of caffeine all in one fell swoop.
There's good news for coffee drinkers — it turns out that coffee, already shown to have some health benefits when consumed in moderation, may be linked to a decreased risk of liver cancer, according to a new study published in May.