Two major issues in the coffee industry are food waste and farmer pay. Scientist Tien Huynh wants to fix both.

By Mike Pomranz
June 07, 2019
John Coletti/Getty Images

I, like most people, drink a lot of coffee. And yet, I’d been drinking coffee for years before I came across cascara — a type of tea made from the skins of coffee fruit — that it suddenly dawned on me: Oh yeah, coffee “beans” are actually the seeds of a berry. Sure, it’s obvious when you say it, but it’s one of those things that’s so simple it had always gone over my head. And when you think about it, coffee beans are ubiquitous, but coffee berries are rarely seen.

Tien Huynh, a senior lecturer in biosciences and biotechnology at RMIT University in Australia, thinks drinkers aren’t the only ones overlooking coffee fruit; counterintuitively enough, she believes that growers may be neglecting these berries — which is even more concerning because they could have the opportunity to further profit from them. “One of the main industries in Vietnam is coffee,” she said of her home country, speaking to Beverage Daily, “but this produces a lot — I mean, a huge amount — of waste. About 50 percent of the berries are wasted and the beans we get our coffee from are discarded as spent coffee grounds.”

Based on her medical expertise in skincare and wound healing, Huynh began testing all parts of the coffee fruits searching for anything that might have healthcare applications. What she says she found is incredible: compounds that could be used to aid everything from healing to skin conditions to inflammation to brain function. “The exciting thing is, if we can find a really good application for it, the pulp is going to be worth more than the beans themselves, so that gives the farmer an opportunity to get something back for their work,” she continued.

If put into practice, Huynh’s ideas could alleviate two major problems in the coffee industry: earning more money for vastly underpaid coffee farmers while also cutting down on waste. The next step is to work with farmers to see if she can turn these opportunities into realities. “As scientists, we are problem solvers,” she told Beverage Daily, “and if we can work together, we can achieve amazing things.” Let’s hope she’s right.

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