When a coffee plant is processed to make the beans that consumers know so well, often left behind is cascara, the pulp and skin of the coffee cherry fruit.
The coffee industry has largely seen cascara as waste that's usually composted to use as fertilizer or just thrown out. But Olam Coffee has found that the leftover pulp and skin has a unique fruity flavor and reported health benefits that make it a sustainable superfruit.
From nutritional bars to iced teas, Olam Coffee is now developing coffee cherry cascara as an ingredient for beverage infusions and concentrates for different applications to meet increasing demand for healthy products and ingredients.
"People have been discarding this for so long. It took some time for us to realize that the amount of value that is there," said Siva Subramanian, vice president of innovation at Olam Coffee, which is a part of Olam Food Ingredients (OFI). "We are at the tipping point where cascara can really become the new valuable food ingredient for the world and as this develops, I'm sure more of the coffee industry is going to be part of the cascara story as well."
Subramanian said that Olam's coffee business has been working on an innovation program since early 2019 and during that time, its objective was to understand more about what type of innovations customers were looking for. Since consumers are increasingly demanding better-for-you products, especially during the pandemic, Subramanian said that Olam is expecting cascara to stand out as a natural ingredient with functional benefits.
"As we were exploring various ideas, cascara struck us as an interesting ingredient, which is very much part of the coffee, and which has been kind of overlooked for many, many years," Subramanian said.
A 'win, win, win' ingredient
Subramanian described cascara as a "win, win, win" because it is sustainable, healthy and cost-effective.
The company said there are perceived health benefits with the natural ingredient, including that it has more antioxidants than acai, pomegranate and other superfruits, as well as bioactive food compounds, like polyphenols and chlorogenic acid, that may have potential to help patients with obesity. Cascara also reportedly has about 25% of the caffeine content as coffee beans.
"Given the lifestyle problems, given the issues related to added sugars, and obesity and all the lifestyle-related chronic illnesses, you really have a fruit material, which can provide bioactives that are going to be completely opposite, it's going to really work against some of those issues," Subramanian said.
"We are at the tipping point where cascara can really become the new valuable food ingredient for the world and as this develops, I'm sure more of the coffee industry is going to be part of the cascara story as well."
Vice president of innovation, Olam Coffee
Subramanian said it is also a new source of revenue for the smallholder farmers and for Olam because they are "creating value from something that we are today discarding." Olam Coffee is sourcing cascara from its coffee estates in Brazil, Laos, Tanzania and Zambia, which have processing capabilities and a certified supply of traceable cascara.
Almost 45% of the coffee cherry is cascara, so Subramanian said it is no additional raw material cost because they already have it and were incurring a cost to safely discard it and not cause any environmental pollution issues.
"We were really generating only much smaller value out of that coffee cherry," he said. "Here we have the opportunity to significantly, I would say, double the revenue from the same raw material. Now we have both the coffee bean and coffee fruit. So really it's a pretty easy calculation that if this becomes a new beverage or new food ingredient, we have really unlimited supply that's available. As long as we have coffee cherries, we have cascara."
Subramanian said producing cascara also feeds into the company's objective of making more sustainably grown ingredients and reducing its carbon footprint. In October, Olam Coffee set its first public sustainability goals, part of which includes decreasing its greenhouse gas emissions 15% by 2025.
What products could this be used for?
Olam Coffee is working to make cascara available in various forms by turning it into a concentrate that can be made into a solid or powder, and then working with customers, like CPG companies, to see how they want to use the ingredient in their products.
"It's really left to the imagination of the food industry," he said. "We can create confectionery out of it. We can create nutritional bars out of it. We can create health drinks out of it. We can incorporate cascara solids into protein shakes — really endless applications."
Its flavor is very different from coffee. During the wet processing method, the fruit pulp is collected and slowly dried, creating pulped cascara that has a sweeter and fruitier flavor compared to the husk variety, which is made with a dry method and can be made into fruit concentrate applications and extracts, the company said.
Olam Coffee said that dry cascara can be used for tea infusions and flour, while liquid cascara concentrates can be used for jams, jellies, dessert toppings and bakery fillings. Soluble cascara powder can be used in hot and cold ready-to-drink beverages and mixes.
There have already been several trials for its cascara production, experimenting with coffee varieties and cherry ripeness, as well as harvesting and processing methods to determine its use for specific ingredient applications.
"We are now setting up infrastructure for collecting the coffee fruit as we do the milling of the coffee cherries in a manner that can be hygienically collected and dried as per the requirements of the food industry," he said. "Once we have the basic cascara ingredients, we are really looking to our customers to say that OK, what kind of applications are you looking for? And then we can further customize this to your applications."
Olam Coffee said there has been significant interest in cascara already. When the pandemic ends and the world reopens, Subramanian said companies want to be able to offer a new exciting ingredient.
Although Olam Coffee is not the first company to discover that cascara can be more than just compost, it is one of the first companies expanding how it can be used. Other specialty companies and coffee farmers have turned cascara into tea infusions in recent years, and Starbucks introduced beverages sweetened with cascara syrup in the U.S. this year.
The company is talking to customers as they fine tune ingredient bases so that they can customize it. For example, Olam recently spoke with a company that wanted a concentrate that can have shelf-stability in refrigerated conditions and then they want to further use the concentrate to make a nutritional bar.
In 2020, Olam has produced dry cascara and now they are working on the concentrate and soluble cascara powders, which they expect to have in 2021. As they work on building it for different usages, the company is also making sure it gets approved to use as an ingredient in these different forms.
"As we develop some of these products and applications, we also need approvals from the respective authorities to be able to introduce this as an offering," Subramanian said. "So that's also actually steaming ahead and the world is getting ready to receive this."