May 11, 2022

Exploring the nutraceutical properties of coffee


Coffee has long been renowned for its health benefits. For decades, research has shown that coffee can help to reduce the risk of developing major diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

However, alongside the health benefits of consuming coffee itself, some of the byproducts in the supply chain actually have nutraceutical properties. These include coffee tree leaves, as well as the pulp and husk from cherries.

With growing pressure to minimise the amount of waste produced by the coffee supply chain, there is understandably interest from food and pharmaceutical companies about reusing the byproducts of coffee production as functional ingredients.

To understand more about this expanding market, I spoke with two coffee and health experts. Read on to find out what they told me.

You may also like our article on coffee, health & wellness.

peeling coffee cherry

What are nutraceuticals?

The concept of using food as a form of medicine has been prevalent in many cultures for centuries. However, it was not until 1989 that Dr. Stephen DeFelice coined the term “nutraceutical” by combining the words “nutrition” and “pharmaceutical”. 

While nutritional products help to provide the essential nutrients needed for healthy body development, pharmaceutical products are used to treat, cure, or prevent medical conditions. 

Nutraceuticals are often defined as food-derived products that supposedly provide both nutritional and medical benefits, such as helping to mitigate the impact of certain health conditions. They can be split into a number of subcategories: dietary supplements, functional foods, medicinal foods, and pharmaceuticals. 

The nutraceutical benefits of coffee have been discussed prominently by the industry for some time. Firstly, coffee has high levels of antioxidants, which have a number of health benefits, including inhibiting cell oxidation. 

Oxidation results in the production of “free radicals”, which can build up in cells and cause a number of diseases, including heart disease. However, antioxidants can prevent these reactive molecules from forming and reduce the risk of developing such health problems.

However, alongside coffee, the byproducts of coffee production also have high levels of antioxidants, and the market for these is growing significantly year-on-year.

With that said, it should be noted that there is some scepticism surrounding how beneficial nutraceutical products actually are. Unlike pharmaceutical companies, nutraceutical manufacturers are generally not required to verify that their products are effective (or even safe for consumption) as the market is less regulated.

producer sorting coffee cherries

The popularity of nutraceuticals

According to recent findings from BCC Research, the global nutraceutical market will be worth around US $438.9 billion by 2026 – a significant increase on the US $289.8 billion valuation in 2021. 

Ruben Dario Sorto Alvarado is the CEO of BioFortune Group. The company produces rare coffee varieties, as well as selling upcycled coffee cascara and coffee concentrates. 

He tells me that younger generations (mainly millennials and Generation Z) represent about 60% of all global nutraceutical consumers.

“The main focus for these customers is taking care of their health, which usually implies consuming organic products or products with known beneficial effects,” he says.

Despite the limited amount of research available on the health benefits of coffee byproducts, demand for coffee-based nutraceuticals is on the rise.

Ruben adds that there has been increasing interest in coffee nutraceutical products in Europe, Asia, North America, and, recently, South America. 

“Customers are also becoming more aware about nutraceutical products that have less impact on the environment,” he says.

One example of a sustainable coffee byproduct which has been growing in popularity in the functional beverage market is cascara, which is the pulp and skin of the coffee fruit. Cascara can be steeped in water to brew a sweet, fruity beverage not unlike herbal tea.

As well as lower caffeine levels, cascara is believed to contain more antioxidants than some superfruits, including blueberries and acai. Moreover, as a result of its high levels of bioactive compounds, cascara can help to promote weight loss.

cross section of coffee cherry

The functional properties of coffee byproducts

Coffee cherries contain multiple layers which protect the seeds (or beans). The smooth outer skin of the cherry is referred to as the exocarp. Underneath the skin is a fibrous pulp known as the mesocarp, which contains many sugars that are important to developing the flavours in coffee. 

A thin layer of mucilage contained within the pulp covers the endocarp: a yellow-coloured parchment layer. Underneath the endocarp is the silverskin, which is a thin paper-like layer that surrounds the seeds.

Depending on the processing method used, there are a number of byproducts created from coffee production. This includes husk, which is comprised of the skin, mucilage, pulp, and parchment of the coffee cherry.

Coffee husk contains many carbohydrates, proteins, fibres, and minerals, so it can have a number of purposes when reused. However, while we know that mucilage is largely composed of water, proteins, sugars, and pectins, further research on its functional properties is necessary.

Coffee husk can be repurposed into products such as biocomponents, bacterial inhibitors, biogas, food production, and animal feed. 

Silverskin typically falls off coffee beans once they have been roasted. As silverskin has low amounts of fat, protein contents of around 12%, and high levels of soluble fibre, it can be used in coffee-based nutraceutical products.

“Silverskin is rich in bioactive compounds, so we are exploring using it in functional products,” Ruben tells me. “However, it requires higher volumes [than other parts of the coffee cherry, so its use is limited at the moment].”

Ruben explains that over the last five years, there has been growing interest in the nutraceutical properties of coffee pulp. This is largely because coffee pulp contains many antioxidants, as well as high levels of potassium, vitamin C, minerals, and numerous bioactive ingredients. 

At BioFortune, Ruben says the company uses many types of coffee pulp, from conventional to certified organic. He tells me that coffee pulp contains a number of bioactive ingredients that are believed to have a range of health benefits. 

Ruben also elaborates on how BioFortune has been developing nutraceutical products from coffee leaves and flowers.

“We are currently developing more than ten different products from these raw materials,” he says.

Coffee leaves are also being tested for several products in industries other than nutraceuticals, such as perfumes, facial cleansers, deodorisers, and tobacco substitutes.

Fermentation has also been found to increase the number of beneficial ingredients which can be derived from coffee tree leaves, husk, pulp, parchment, and silverskin. One of these ingredients is chlorogenic acid extract. 

Research suggests that this has various beneficial properties for human health, such as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antihypertensive qualities.

dried coffee cherries

Adding value to functional coffee products

The global coffee industry generates over 20 billion kilograms of coffee cherry waste annually. This waste is sometimes discarded by farmers and milling stations, which can cause serious environmental damage over time. 

Ruben tells me that for each pound of coffee (0.45kg) harvested, one pound of pulp is produced. If disposed of irresponsibly, this pulp can pollute rivers and cause the acidity levels of the soil to increase. 

Luis Alejandro Mejía Caniz is the co-founder of Foodtech Specialties and BioTec Agro, a subsidiary of BioFortune Group.

“Nowadays, when managing pulp, most producers create compost,” he tells me. 

However, while compost and fertilisers are undoubtedly beneficial for farmers, Luis explains that turning pulp into nutraceutical products can create a new revenue stream if there is a market for it.

“When turning pulp from a fertiliser or culture into a nutraceutical, producers can be paid up to three or four times higher,” he says.

However, Luis notes that the market for this is still comparatively very small at present. In order for this economic growth to be sustainable, he says more efforts need to be made to make farmers aware of these opportunities. Ultimately, this means improving producers’ access to international nutraceutical markets.

“[In many cases, coffee farmers struggle to add value to their crop],” Ruben says. “BioFortune focuses more on coffee byproducts, such as pulp, leaves, and flowers.

“All of these products create more potential investments for producers and allow for the development of new technologies,” he adds. “This is where I believe the coffee sector must focus to improve prices and mitigate financial risk for producers.”

Luis notes that there is also a small but growing market for coffee nutraceuticals to be sold as high-end products. If the market grows in the future, and producers are supported to gain access to it, it could help to generate profitable revenue streams.

coffee cascara

Although future prospects for the coffee nutraceutical industry are promising, it is still comparatively small in size, and the market faces a number of challenges (such as regulatory issues and consumer scepticism).

To overcome these obstacles to growth, more research will be necessary, as will continued efforts to improve the size of the market for nutraceuticals. Furthermore, more quality control and product diversification will be key.

Ultimately, the coffee nutraceutical industry still has some way to go. Nonetheless, as we continue to learn more about how coffee byproducts can be reused and recycled, producers will gradually have more opportunities to generate income from what is currently waste. Even if the market isn’t huge right now, it’s still a step in the right direction.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether edible coffee products are becoming more popular.

Photo credits: Luis Mejia

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