Kickstarter Campaign Claims to Have Developed 'Molecular Coffee:' But What Does That Actually Mean?

Wednesday, 13 February 2019 - 12:08PM
Wednesday, 13 February 2019 - 12:08PM
Kickstarter Campaign Claims to Have Developed 'Molecular Coffee:' But What Does That Actually Mean?
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Composite adapted from images on Pixabay

When Carl Sagan said that "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe," the observation was less on baked confections than it was on cosmic connectedness: the fact that everything in our universe emerged from something else. To truly make an apple pie – or anything else – from scratch, you'd have to first make each of its components, including those that you consist of. To consider the depth of his statement is to consider our relatively irrelevant place in a universe that existed billions of years before us and will continue for billions more when we have been reduced to atomic particles in search of an identity. 

Before you drown in existential anxiety or run for the consolations of philosophy, religion, or chemically-induced escapism, you might consider another question raised by Sagan's statement: can humans ever really invent anything? This is what we came to ponder when stumbling upon a Kickstarter campaign by Atomo, a Seattle-based startup company that claims to have "reverse engineered the coffee bean to create a better cup of coffee." 

Atomo is the brainchild of entrepreneur Andy Kleitsch, who serves as CEO, and Chief Scientist Dr. Jarret Stopforth, a food microbiologist whose background includes positions at Chobani, Campbell's Soup, and Soylent. The Kickstarter campaign, which sought to raise $10,000 in pre-sales, is fully funded with $12,636 at time of writing and 23 days left on its "all or nothing" deadline.

According to its marketing materials, the problem that Atomo seeks to solve seems to be mainly focused on taste. Their press kit cites a an article in Men's Journal that mentions that researchers at University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign found that 68% of Americans add sweeteners, milk, or cream to their coffee. Atomo's literature states that the company "interpret(s) this as 'they're not satisfied with the flavor of their coffee.'" 

After some some experimentation, Atomo says they have developed "molecular coffee," which, they claim, is "the smoothest coffee you've ever had – with a caffeine kick you'd expect" without using coffee beans. In quotes from Stopforth, the company claims that it is "building (the) mouthfeel and body of molecular coffee to mimic that of conventional coffee by replacing the polysaccharides, oils and proteins found in the insoluble part of the coffee ground with natural, sustainable and upcycled plant-based materials that deliver the same great effect" while "using sustainable and upcycled products as the base of our coffee that is dialed in by the appropriate amount of specific flavor compounds that are all naturally derived."

A careful look at Atomo's marketing language both on Kickstarter and their press kit, however, raises some interesting questions about what, exactly, it is that they've invented. In a press release dated February 6, 2019, Atomo announced the "development of the world's first molecular coffee containing no coffee beans. By reverse-engineering the coffee bean, Atomo has created a naturally-derived and sustainable coffee with the same caffeine you'd expect and no harsh acid or bitterness."

So what is molecular coffee? Well, from a purely scientific standpoint, it's a buzzword. There's no molecule for coffee. In their press kit's FAQ for Media, the company itself plainly states that "what we call molecular coffee today, will probably be called something different 6 months from now." Ok, fair enough: it's marketing, it works, and there's some degree of transparency about it. That still leaves room to wonder what their product is.

To tackle that, the better question is to ask, "what is coffee?" To most people, coffee is a drink derived from ground, roasted coffee beans by soaking them in water. If we go a little further, we might assert that the drink contains various extracted aromatics, oils, volatiles, and insolubles from the ground beans. Atomo, however, has a slightly different take on the definition of coffee. Noting that the FDA has "no defined Standard of Identity (S.O.I.) for coffee," Atomo says that coffee is a "flavor and experience." This is an interesting position because the company's raison d'être is an assertion of consumer dissatisfaction with the flavor of coffee. While hardly ripping asunder the veil of reality, this definition leads to a 21st century reductio ad absurdum of sorts: if you wish to reinvent coffee from scratch, you must first assert that coffee is a concept. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Futurism has observed that, aside from "upcycled plant materials," the company is exceptionally opaque when it comes to their secret formula. "At this time we're not disclosing our ingredients," the FAQ says, though the Kickstarter's FAQ offers some hint, albeit cloaked in technical language, of what Atomo contains.

"For the insoluble, non-volatile portion of the molecular grounds, we are still exploring many options and targeting an upcycled play that would take the byproduct of a current commercial operation and add value to it by using it as the carrier matrix for our flavor and mouthfeel compounds - essentially the proteins, carbohydrates and oil components you can expect from coffee grounds. Some examples of that would be watermelon seeds or sunflower seeds husks. Much of what we are doing at this stage is still proprietary as we have a good journey ahead to optimize the perfect molecular coffee that can be enjoyed as your daily ritual. All compounds and strategies will be shared as they evolve and are optimized." The company further advises that "all ingredients that we will use will be GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) and thus FDA compliant."

We have to wonder if they're not using the most obvious candidate for coffee: upcycled coffee grounds. Technically not beans, upcycled (read: used) coffee grounds would be largely devoid of some of the harsher and more bitter alkaloids and oils encountered during an initial brew. Indeed, the campaign never says that there's no coffee grounds in their coffee: they just say that there's no coffee beans. Naturally, using upcycled coffee grounds wouldn't be enough to create a full flavor – or stimulant – profile, but there's no shortage of historical substitutes: chicory and guarana both come to mind. Not having to source (or grow) and roast coffee beans would save considerable time and money. Then again, to create a "coffee," they wouldn't even have to use coffee grounds: they could simply use a proprietary, caffeinated coffee flavoring, wed it to their "carrier" matrix, and voilà: "molecular coffee." Until the company chooses to reveal their ingredients, they leave themselves open to this kind of scrutiny.

Without full disclosure from the company, this is all speculation: no more, no less. As far as we can tell, however, no one at Atomo has created the universe, so we'll be quite content to enjoy our traditionally brewed coffee with our apple pie until then.

Science News