Civet Coffee Tested For Authenticity Of Poop, As Sellers Protect Market

By Matthew Mientka on September 9, 2013 11:59 AM EDT

Civet cat (Luwak) in Kepahiang
Copi Luwak, or civet coffee, is made using coffee cherries that have been eaten and partially digested by a civet cat (shown here), and then harvested from its fecal matter. (Photo: Leenderz, Creative Commons)

File this one under "First World problems": food scientists this summer announced a way to verify the authenticity of expensive coffee beans passed through the digestive system of palm civets, also called luwaks, a small nocturnal mammal native to tropical regions of Asia and Africa.

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Typically sold for $150-227 per pound, the coffee beans are excreted by civets that have consumed the ripe coffee cherries from the plant. Afterward, the beans are cleaned, wet-fermented, sun-dried, and roasted. Given the high price, marketers say fraudulent blends abound on the online market.

In an effort to protect the trade, researchers say they've discovered a "metabolic fingerprint" identifying the "real Kopi Luwak," as the coffee is known in Indonesian. The chemical tracer reflects higher levels of citric acid in the beans, in addition to a higher level of malic acid and a specific ratio of inositol/pyruglutamic acid. Eichiro Fukasaki, a professor of biotechnology at Osaka University in Japan, focused on metabolites in his research, which may be detected in food by gas chromatography and mass spectrometry — the same tools used to test urine for traces of illicit drugs.

However, Fukasaki and others acknowledge the science is not quite ready to take to the marketplace. Stanley Segall, a spokesman for the Institute for Food Technologies in Chicago, praised the work but said more study is needed. "It's the first study of this type and it's not clear to me that they were really rigorous in terms of sample selection," Seagull told USA Today on Monday. He added that researchers might improve the study by comparing two sets of coffee cherries from the same tree, with one passing through the digestive system of a civet and the other as a control.

Although some dismiss civet coffee as a marketing ploy, Rocky Rhodes, president of International Coffee Consulting, explains the logic. Whereas a low-paid farm worker in the tropics may not select the choicest beans during day of field work, the civet would surely choose the ripest of beans for sustenance in a process honed by nature itself. Similarly, the beans would likely be safer for human consumption given that civets would stray from anything smelling of bad chemical fertilizer, in favor of more "organic" choices.

Source: Jumhawan, Udi, Putri, Sastia Prama, Marwani, Yusianto Erly, Bamba, Takeshi, Fukasaki, Eiichiro. Selection Of Discriminant Markers For Authentication Of Asian Palm Civet Coffee. Journal Of Agricultural And Food Chemistry. 2013.

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