The coffee bean: the universal symbol of java. Logos, coffeeshop names, cheesy puns (ahem, I certainly never make bean puns). But the iconic bean has rather stolen the spotlight from another member of the coffee family: the coffee berry. Yes, coffee is a fruit. Er, sort of. While the health effects of coffee have been debated ad nauseam, the coffee berry has been garnering attention recently as having health creds to rival even the most touted superfoods. Is this news to anyone else? I was casually sipping a Bai (like Gatorade’s Whole-Foods-born sister) when I skimmed the back of the bottle and saw a blurb on the “secret ingredient” of the drink: coffee fruit. Say what? My curiosity was (of course) piqued, and I had to do a bit more research. So what’s the deal? Read on for the 411 on the coffee bean’s neglected sister.
What is this?
Just as it sounds, the coffee berry is, well, a berry. The bean part used to make our fav brew is actually the seed at the center of a round red berry known as the coffee fruit, coffee berry, or coffee cherry. Picture a bush with jasmine-like flowers and cranberry-esque berries (can I get a coffee bush in my apartment?). The berry itself has a crisp skin layer, similar to a bell pepper, and a sweet, sticky pulp. Full disclosure: I haven’t actually eaten a coffee cherry (believe me, I would pick some up at Whole Foods if I could), but the taste apparently varies according to the type of bean and can have notes of berry, watermelon, jasmine, and hibiscus. If you’re curious, cascara — a tea-like drink common in coffee-growing regions that’s made from infusing dried coffee cherry husks in water — has a similar taste.
Anyway, the berry pulp is separated from the bean and used as fertilizer, while the bean begins its journey to your cup. That’s usually the end of the story for the coffee berry, but thanks to recent studies and a few enterprising products, coffee fruit may have a new role as the next big superfood.
Graphic courtesy of Studentshow.
Superfood credentials, please.
Coffee fruit’s main claim to (health nut) fame is that buzzword: antioxidants. I know, I know, everything is a new antioxidant-hoard superfood. Hear me out and decide for yourself about the hype. So, antioxidants. According to dermatologist Dr. Debbie Palmer, coffee fruit pulp has higher levels of antioxidants than tea, vitamins C & E, raspberries, strawberries, pomegranate, and blueberries, and the US Department of Agriculture states that coffee fruit extract provides 30 to 40 times the antioxidant power of superfood celebs açai and pomegranate. Antioxidants are well-supported by science to have notable health benefits: They help protect against cell damage from free radicals that can lead to memory degeneration, cancer, heart disease, and more. They boost the immune system and have anti-inflammatory properties. They grant eternal life. Ok, maybe not that last one. But good stuff, in any case.
In addition, studies associate coffee fruit extract with increased levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that aids in nerve growth, cognition and mental processes. Decreased BDNF has been linked to depression, Alzheimer’s, OCD, and dementia. In other words, coffee berry extract could boost BDNF levels, aiding in neurological health.
And to top it off, coffee fruit extract provides a boost of natural energy with only 4.4 mg of caffeine per gram versus the 100-150 mg of caffeine in a typical brewed cup of coffee.
Seeking out the magic berry
So how do you get this stuff? The actual fruit is a bit difficult to find unless you live in a coffee-growing region (and it’s not really a pop-in-your-mouth snack anyway), but extracts and powders are becoming trendy ingredients in skincare products, supplements, juices, and more. A company called FutureCeuticals took the lead here, creating a patented process for preserving coffee fruit, as well as a coffee fruit extract, NeuroFactor, and a line of powders and concentrates, Coffeeberry.
Then you have my introduction to coffee fruit: Bai, a series of coffee fruit-infused drinks in a variety of exotic fruit flavors. The drinks taste like fruit juice or fancy Gatorade (not coffee berry itself), and Bai focuses on the exotic fruit aspect rather than marketing the coffee fruit element, though they embrace the idea of a “secret” ingredient (i.e., coffee fruit).
Playing up the tropical and superfood angles, KonaRed creates juices and drink powders using Coffeeberry’s drying/extraction processes and highlights its Hawaiian origins and health benefits as “Hawaiian Superfruit Antioxidant Juice.”
And finally, departing from the juice-crazy crowd a bit: CoffeeFlour. As you might guess, this is “flour” made from dried and ground coffee fruit. I actually did an entire post on it — check out the deets here.
So there you have it. Personally, I have no idea how much benefit you actually get from Bai juice (I just like the taste). I kind of doubt coffee fruit is a miracle superfood, but it certainly seems to have some good credentials, and I’m interested in checking out CoffeeFlour and cascara tea purely for the sake of experimentation. If I’m ever lucky enough to visit a coffee farm, I’ll certainly be plucking a few ripe coffee cherries. What do you think? Will you give coffee fruit extract a try?
*This post was previously published on my former blog, Beanopia, in 2016.