Sunday, August 31, 2008

Starbucks no longer gives small coffee shops the jitters

Unlike independents going up against a big retailer like Wal-Mart, other coffeehouses often thrive when Starbucks is nearby. While they respect much of what Starbucks has done — notably, opening more than 11,000 stores nationwide that bring espresso and lattes to the masses — they have learned not to fear it.

Jack Kelly remembers when independent coffee shops in Seattle feared Starbucks.

In the late 1980s, "you certainly didn't want a Starbucks opening across the street," said Kelly, who co-owned Uptown Espresso back then. "We didn't realize how many coffee drinkers there were and how big this thing was going to get."

By 1994, Kelly grasped the enormity of the coffee scene and brazenly opened his first Caffe Ladro near Starbucks atop Queen Anne Hill. They continue to duke it out for customers, along with nearby Tully's Coffee and Peet's Coffee & Tea. None of the four releases single-store sales figures.

On Capitol Hill, Starbucks was not so lucky. Its store at 328 15th Ave. E. will close by the end of March, one of 616 closures nationwide as the struggling coffee-shop chain tries to boost profits.

Kelly doesn't kid himself that the 15th Avenue Caffe Ladro or nearby Victrola Coffee and Art had much to do with it.

"Starbucks stores are always the busiest," Kelly said. "A lot of people know Caffe Ladro, but it pales in comparison, even in Seattle."

That's not to say Starbucks has better coffee, he said. "They're the McDonald's of coffee in Seattle. They're convenient and everybody knows what they're going to get."

Backhanded compliment

It's a backhanded compliment paid by independent coffee-shop owners around the country. While they respect much of what Starbucks has done — notably, opening more than 11,000 stores nationwide that bring espresso and lattes to the masses — they have learned not to fear it.

These small, nimble competitors don't struggle with the high overhead costs and glaring global scrutiny that besets Starbucks. Unlike independents up against a big retailer like Wal-Mart, they often thrive when Starbucks is nearby.

Collectively, independent and small-chain coffeehouses have the largest share of coffee and doughnut sales in the U.S., with 34 percent of the market in 2006, according to a new report from the Chicago research firm Mintel. Starbucks has the next largest share at 29 percent


"When you talk to all the detractors whose critique is that Starbucks ruined the culture of coffeehouses, you'd get the impression there were all these coffeehouses and then Starbucks came in and destroyed them," said Kim Fellner, a longtime national labor and community organizer whose book "Wrestling with Starbucks: Conscience, Capital, Cappuccino" came out last month


While there are some examples of Starbucks putting independents out of business, she said, "you find far more where people who look at Starbucks and say, 'They're being successful. I could be, too.' "

The popularity of Starbucks has helped spread coffeehouse culture beyond university communities and Italian neighborhoods, Fellner said.

Seattle can claim some credit, too, having birthed both Starbucks and a robust independent coffee-shop industry that continues to grow.

One of the newest is Fuel Coffee, a chain of three shops that began in 2005. The Fuel in Wallingford opened last spring and is a quarter-mile from another Starbucks slated to close.

Like Kelly, Fuel owner Dani Cone does not pretend she slew the giant.

There isn't much customer overlap between Starbucks and Fuel, she said. "People will come to us because we don't have that big corporate feel."

Even the vibe among independents varies quite a bit, said Cone, who edited a book of stories from baristas in Seattle and Portland called "Tall Skinny Bitter: Notes from the Center of Coffee Culture" that's due out next spring. "You'll find a shop where you click with it best for whatever your personal reasons are," she said.

The story is the same around the country, with coffee-shop owners forming a mostly friendly fraternity whose circle does not include Starbucks.

Sometimes the tension picks up, like a couple years ago when Starbucks opened next door to Lucy's Coffee & Tea near the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

At first, owner Lucy Bonds saw an uptick in business as people rallied to support her.

"People were mad that they would truly belly up beside me," she said.

Last month, Bonds learned the Starbucks store will close.

"It made me feel good that I could last longer than the big boys," she said.

Bonds won't miss the chain giving out free coffee on the corner — sometimes full-size drinks.

"I can't stand out there and give away free stuff," she said. "I've made it, but it's been hard. This year I paid off my original business loan from 15 years ago."

Marketing ploys

Independent coffee-shop owners roll their eyes at Starbucks' marketing, from price discounts to the way its stores post signs loudly hawking new drinks like Vivanno smoothies.

"This idea that you can have a marketing-driven business and get people in with ads or specials or gimmicks is so over in the inner city," said David Schomer, co-owner of Espresso Vivace in Seattle


Even back in 1988 when he had just a coffee cart on Capitol Hill, Schomer thought of Starbucks as a suburban player and a place for new espresso drinkers. He sees independent shops like the three he runs as havens for people who have outgrown dark-roasted coffee with lots of milk.

"The independents are right there ready for the customer to graduate," Schomer said.

In some cities, that is just beginning to happen


New York's coffee scene looks much like Seattle's did 15 years ago, said J.D. Merget, who owns two shops called Oslo Coffee with his wife in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Merget grew up in Seattle and drove a truck for Starbucks when he was in college almost 20 years ago.

Starbucks lost its neighborhood feel when it switched to automated espresso machines and started selling blended drinks, he said. He still visits occasionally but does not consider them competition for customers.

"Starbucks is good enough to get them addicted," Merget said, "and then you take them beyond that."

Friday, August 29, 2008

Paprika is a safe color for foods

The increasing use of paprika as a food color does not present any safety concerns for cancer or chronic toxicity, Japanese researchers have reported.

A study with rats showed that no effects were observed when consumed at a level of 2.5 per cent in the diet, while the no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) is five per cent in the diet, according to results published in this month’s issue of Food and Chemical Toxicology.

“Considering increased in consumption of paprika color as a food additive, safety assessment of this compound is an urgent matter,” stated the researchers from the Japanese National Institute of Health Sciences.

The researchers performed a 52-week and 104-week study with male and female rats, testing paprika color at dietary concentrations of 0, 0.62, 1.25, 2.5 and 5 per cent, has redressed the balance, finding no concerns in terms of chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity.

While the researchers noted an increase in the male rats’ livers when the five per cent paprika treatment over 52-weeks, and stated that, for males, there were not toxicological effects regarding survival rates. No effects were observed in female rats at any of the dose levels tested.

The authors determined that the no-observed-effect level (NOEL) was 2.5 per cent in the diet, or 1253 mg per kg of bodyweight per day, for the male rats. The NOEL for the female rats was determine to be five per cent, or 2826 mg per kg of bodyweight per day.

In the 104-week carcinogenicity study, no detrimental effects were recorded in either male or female animals.

“The overall data strongly therefore suggest a lack of carcinogenicity of paprika color under the present experimental conditions,” concluded the researchers.

Natural colors now make up 31 per cent of the colorings market, compared with 40 per cent for synthetics, according to LFI.

Chr Hansen is the considered to be the largest single company in the natural colorings market, having been acquired by the PAI Partners private equity firm in 2005.

In terms of paprika, however, the Danish company sold its paprika business activities and production facilities in Spain and India in June 2007 in order to focus on value-added activities.

The business - which includes paprika and spice oleoresin, rosemary extract, paprika powder, turmeric, bixin and chlorophyll products - was sold for an undisclosed sum.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Demand for premium chocolate soars

As a software developer who worked with NASA, Timothy Childs built vision-tracking systems for the space shuttle. Now the former techie has a new venture that he says is out of this world: chocolate.

As demand for premium chocolate soars, a new crop of high-tech confectioners are changing the industry with Silicon Valley-style innovation, antique German equipment and an obsession with the simple cocoa bean.

"The bean totally seduced me," said Childs, co-founder and "chief chocolate officer" of TCHO, a San Francisco-based startup seeking to improve the quality of chocolate through scientific experimentation with flavors. "On a molecular level, making chocolate is enrapturing."

TCHO, pronounced "choh," isn't your ordinary chocolate factory. Based on San Francisco, California's idyllic waterfront, the company currently sells its chocolate only online in brown packets labeled "beta," solicits feedback and reaches out to customers through social media outlets like YouTube.

Eventually, it plans to sell its chocolate to food companies and through high-end retail outlets.

TCHO shuns the usual practice of classifying bars by cacao content or origin, relying instead on a "flavor wheel" that emphasizes taste above all: "Chocolatey," "Fruity," and "Nutty" are out now, with "Earthy," "Floral," and "Citrus" on the way.

"Saying a bar is '70 percent cacao' doesn't equate," said Childs, referring the industry standard for premium chocolate. "People should pick chocolate the same way they buy wine and food, by flavor."

A similar philosophy drives Amano Chocolate, a recently launched company based in Utah's Wasatch Mountain range whose goal is to offer in the U.S. the premium, artisan chocolate once found mainly in Europe.

Founder Art Pollard, another software developer who studied physics, fell in love with chocolate making during a honeymoon trip to Hawaii and whipped up his first batch using science lab equipment intended to grind chemicals.

"Eventually I started fashioning my own equipment and began churning out some fine-quality chocolate," said Pollard, who studied confectionary in Europe and buys his beans in far-flung villages in Venezuela and Ecuador.

"It is extremely hard work and takes a lot of time, but, boy, is it beautiful when you get right," said Pollard, who now uses turn-of-the-century era equipment imported from Germany to roast, grind, melt and mold his chocolate into bars.

Neither TCHO nor Amano would provide sales figures, but both say they have aggressive growth plans in the future.

Though a soft economy has forced Americans to cut back on some luxuries, U.S. sales of dark chocolate keep booming, lifted even higher recently by studies touting the confection's purported health benefits and growing consumer interest in organic and fair-trade products.

Total U.S. chocolate sales are expected to soar to $18 billion annually by 2011, up from $16 billion in 2006, with organic and dark chocolate representing the fastest-growing segment.

"Chocolate is an affordable indulgence. No matter how difficult economic times get, we'll always want to treat ourselves," said Joan Steuer, president of Chocolate Marketing LLC, which studies trends and new products in the industry.

But while sales are growing, so is the competition, crowding shelves of grocery stores with brands like Ghirardelli, Godiva, Dagoba and Scharffen Berger.

While there's only around a dozen U.S. "bean-to-bar" manufacturers that make their own chocolate from scratch, smaller players who buy their chocolate wholesale and melt it into bars are entering the market at a rate of about one a month, Steuer said.

"It's exploding," she said. "The market isn't saturated yet, but it's close."

That doesn't mean people are getting rich cranking out bars and bonbons, however.

Bulging input costs and paper-thin profit margins have squeezed traditional chocolate manufacturers and make it extremely difficult for new players to break in.

A commodities boom has pushed the price of cocoa, the chief ingredient in chocolate, above $3,000 per metric ton -- the highest in 22 years and double the price from a year ago.

Battered by the increases, No. 1 U.S. candy maker The Hershey Co. and smaller rival Mars, maker of Snickers bars and M&Ms, announced earlier this month they were raising prices for their products by more than 10 percent.

Still, most new chocolatiers say passion -- not profits -- is what motivates them.

Many have learned the craft over the Internet, launched one-person chocolate factories from their kitchens and put up Web sites to sell their products online from anywhere.

"The Internet has really opened things up," said Pam Williams, who runs Ecole Chocolat, an online school that trains people to make their own chocolate and open a business. "Now you can go to Kansas City and find a good chocolate maker who rivals the quality and craftsmanship of that you would find in Europe."

Last year, one of her former students, Donna Smith, began selling homemade truffles, peanut butter balls and other candies online through her company, which she hopes will allow her and her husband to earn an income from home.

"The sky is the limit right now," said Smith, who works out of her kitchen in Akron, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles from the Hershey plant and who has seen sales steadily increase. "People love chocolate, especially in hard times when they want to be comforted."

Some niche chocolate makers have dreams of being bought out by a major candy manufacturer for a sweet payday. That's what happened to Dagoba, an organic chocolate maker acquired by Hershey's two years ago for an undisclosed sum believed to be between $10 million and $15 million.

But Childs, co-founder of TCHO, said his priority is building up the company -- not cashing out. The company shuns venture capital and raised all its start-up funds through family and friends, who received equity in the company.

"For right now, I'm very happy just making chocolate that fills my factory, " he said.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Watching investors as commodities slide

Commodities - the stuff that feeds us, runs our cars, heats our homes and provides the basic materials of everyday life - recently enjoyed one of the great bull runs of modern investment history, nearly doubling in price in the space of a year.

In the past month, though, prices of a wide range of commodities, from oil to corn to copper, have come back down with a vengeance as the global economy cools. We now know that the commodities boom was another bubble, not that much different from technology stocks in the 1990s and real estate earlier in this decade, market pros say.

"The recent bull run in commodities was based more on investment demand than the fundamentals of the world economy," said William Berg, president of Sigma Investment Management in Portland, Ore


But there's one great difference. This was a bubble that picked the pockets of ordinary people around the world, be it a suburban mom in the United States paying $4.50 a gallon to fill her minivan or a laborer in Pakistan unable to buy rice or bread to feed his family.

Prices in the commodities markets are not just matters for investors. They quickly find their way into the retail cost of food, fuel and building materials. The United Nations has calculated that in recent months an additional 50 million people around the world joined the ranks of those whose health suffers because they can't afford food, notes Sophia Murphy, an analyst with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group critical of agribusiness.

The markets "have a very immediate and negative impact," Murphy said. "They exacerbate peaks and troughs. In the long run, they have less of an impact than in the short run. But in the short run, people die."

From the summer of 2007 through the beginning of July, the entire gamut of traded commodities, with few exceptions, shot up in price. Crude oil nearly touched $150 per barrel at the beginning of July, up from $70 the year before. Wheat soared 125 percent from August 2007 to March 2008. Natural gas, corn, copper and soybeans traced similar courses.

Supply and demand by themselves can't explain price jumps of those magnitudes, market pros say. They acknowledge that real-world factors are vital and usually are what set trends in motion. Yet despite talk of peak oil, global food shortages and China's growing appetite for raw materials, a significant portion, some argue a majority, of recent commodity price increases stemmed from investors searching for profit.

No huge jump in oil use

Take oil, for example. In recent years, world demand for petroleum has been growing by a few percentage points annually. But that incremental gain led to oversize movements in the marketplace.

"Did you see a huge increase in use of petroleum products? No," said Philip Gotthelf, president of Equidex, a New Jersey commodities trading firm. "Did peak oil happen? No. We didn't have a crisis that warranted this $150 oil."

All the same, if the commodity investment markets are behind much of the price run-ups, the story can't be boiled down merely to one of greedy speculators. The matter is more complicated than that, both technically and morally. It's not just super-rich hedge fund traders who play in commodities. Pension funds, universities, foundations and other conservative, long-term institutional investors have jumped into the market in a big way.

By March 2008, investors worldwide had sunk more than $400 billion into commodities, up $70 billion from the beginning of the year and twice as much as in late 2005, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

Specialized funds

Changes in the market encouraged the trend. Traditionally, commodities changed hands in what are called futures markets where participants buy and sell contracts to take delivery of bulk quantities of heating oil or aluminum or pork bellies months or even years in advance. These contracts, sold in exchanges that are home to the familiar clamoring, wildly gesticulating traders, are highly volatile and risky.

Historically, the main participants in the market were farmers and businesses that produced or consumed commodities and wanted to control the prices at which they bought or sold. In addition, speculative investors, such as hedge funds, made bets on which way prices would go


To make commodities palatable to a broader range of investors, brokerage firms created specialized funds in recent years that allowed investors to buy shares in a range of commodities. That opened the market to nontraditional investors

For example, the California Public Employees' Retirement System, the largest public pension fund in the United States, started a pilot program to invest in commodities in 2007. It says commodities now make up less than 1 percent of its portfolio.

All that new money pouring into the market put intense upward pressure on prices. "The impact of those folks coming onto the scene was greater than the effect of speculative investors," said James Greenleaf, a finance professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

What really jolted the market though was the subprime mortgage crisis that erupted last summer. It slammed stocks and devastated the vast market for securities backed by home loans. The trading desks of major banks and hedge funds saw salvation in commodities.

"People in the know saw that paper assets stocks and bonds would get into serious trouble," Gotthelf said. "They figured the only safe haven was tangible assets. There was a complete panic out of paper and into physical assets. They moved not for speculation, but for protection."

As the months wore on, investors threw ever-larger sums into commodities, even as evidence accumulated that the global economy was slowing and demand for fuel, food and metals was slackening. The inevitable result was the crash of recent weeks, after worldwide economic weakness became too overwhelming to ignore.

"These things always run their course," said Edward Meir, an analyst with MF Global, a commodities brokerage firm. "After a while, the trend stops going one way. This time, it turned around with particular vengeance."

The shift will bring some relief to consumers, who are already seeing gas prices fall. Food prices should ease as well.

"I wouldn't be surprised if this commodity effect lowers food prices, maybe in the fourth quarter," said Daniel Sumner, director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center at UC Davis.

Now a political issue

No one knows where commodity prices will settle. But even the most optimistic forecasts predict that prices will stay above historic levels, suggesting that $2.50 per gallon gas and cheap grain aren't in the cards.

But the wild ride of commodities has had one clear result - it's made the markets a political issue. Democrats in Congress have called for controls on commodity trading as a way of easing gas prices. Critics say it's far from clear that such regulation is workable and could interfere with the important economic role commodities trading plays for farmers, airlines and other traditional market participants.

As for the real speculators, most will live to trade another day.

"They're all momentum players," Greenleaf said. "Those people do not like to stand in front of steamrollers that are running downhill. They all can turn on a dime."

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Brew Perfect Cup Coffee At Home, For A Lot Less Expensive Than Going Out

You can make a terrific cup of coffee at home. It's simple and easy.

What it basically comes down to is good ingredients.

You can get a good drip coffee machine for around $30. You also need some filters, which cost $4 or $5 for a box of 100. A pound of good coffee beans will run you $10-$12, and a coffee bean grinder goes for around $15.

You can buy coffee in a can ready to go, but it won't be perfect. It will just be ok.

Step #1: Buy newly roasted, whole beans

If you want perfect coffee, the two most important things are the beans and water. The beans give it the flavor. If you make a hamburger out of two-week-old beef, it isn't going taste good. Same with coffee.

How do you know what kind of beans to get?

Go to a place that roasts its beans frequently. Find the local coffee fanatic shop and ask them where they get their beans. You're looking at levels of quality. The lowest quality is the can; next up is beans from the grocery store (you don't know how old they are); third is when you get up to coffee roaster shops like Starbucks (which has pretty fresh coffee). A lot of the little guys actually date the coffee bags.

Use whole beans, ideally no more than a week or so past when they're roasted. You wouldn't make a sandwich with old, stale bread, so why do you want to make coffee with old, stale beans? Coffee suppliers that are really on top of trends always label beans with a roast date, so you know how old the beans are. Never start with pre-ground beans: By the time you buy them, they've lost all the great coffee characteristics they had in the first place. And keep your beans in a cool, dry, dark container, but not the fridge or freezer.

Step #2: Use the right filter

Use an unbleached paper filter or a gold filter. The bleached (white) ones affect the flavor of the coffee, so avoid them. The unbleached ones aren't as pretty, but who cares? You put the filter in the machine, and now it's time to grind the coffee. Remember to change the filter every time you make a new pot. . The unbleached ones don't cost any more money, but in the long run the gold filter is cheapest because you never have to buy filters again.

Step #3: Mind the grind

Grind the coffee beans with your own grinder. Put the beans in the grinder and grind them for 10 seconds. Grind only what you're going to use that day. Then, put two tablespoons of coffee into the coffee maker.

Coffee fanatics will tell you to spend $200 on a fancy burr grinder. Skip it! Unless you're an absolute coffee fanatic, an inexpensive blade grinder ($15 or so) is fine. For a drip coffee maker, grind your coffee a little finer than kosher salt, about ten seconds in the grinder.

Step #4: Use the right amount of coffee --- for you!

The good basic rule is two tablespoons of ground coffee per one six ounce cup. The typical pot holds around six cups, but you can buy them in any size. If you like your coffee weak, put in one-and-a-half tablespoons, and if you like it strong, go up to three and stand back! The same proportions go for decaf.

Step #5: Use water that tastes good

Coffee is about 98 percent water. Tap water is fine, as long as you like your tap water. I was in a city once where the water smelled like fish, so my coffee smelled like fish! If you have good tap water, you're fine. You can also use bottled water or filtered water.

So, now it's time to put the water in and click the machine on. It takes about three-six minutes to brew, depending on how many cups you're making -- plenty of time to jump in the shower, and less time then standing in line at Starbucks!

Then, pour the coffee and enjoy.

What about cream and sugar?

The rule is: Do what you like. There's no right or wrong.

What about iced coffee?

For iced coffee, make it stronger. Put three tablespoons of ground beans instead of two, because the ice cubs will dilute the coffee. If you really like iced coffee, you can even make coffee ice cubes!

How long can your coffee stay in the pot?

No more than 45 minutes. After that, the heating plate will start to cook the coffee and make it bitter.

Can you reheat your coffee in the microwave?

You can, but it never tastes as good. The microwave does something to the coffee. But overall, it's OK.

How should coffee makers be cleaned?

If you want your coffee to keep tasting great, clean your coffee maker once a month. Run a carafe of half-white vinegar and half-water through it, then run clean water through it a couple of times. Works like a charm.

Where do I get my coffee?

I buy 5 pounds at a time, whole bean, freshly roasted. I have it mailed from: Check them out, I feel they are the best.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Washington officials becoming more understanding on bakers' appeals

Washington in June is quite different from Washington in March. Or so it appeared judging by the second rendition of the bakers March on Washington, organized last week by the American Bakers Association.

When the industry made its pitch about high flour prices in March and changes the government should adopt, many of the government officials with whom the group met reacted as though they were hearing an utterly foreign language. Other than fulfilling the need to appear (barely) polite for constituents, the officials (or staffers) from Secretary of Agriculture Schafer to prominent members of Congress appeared to have no idea what the bakers were talking about.

How could anyone find fault in a program wonderfully named the "Conservation Reserve?" What controversy could there be over government efforts to help reduce dependence on imported oil using domestic, renewable grain?

Finally, in meetings with the A.B.A. members, Washington officials were much more receptive to the appeals of the bakers. Driven by flooding in the United States rather than droughts in distant lands like Australia, surging grain prices have reached the radar screens in Washington. The officials with whom the bakers met last week appeared as though they were seeking help in resolving the current situation as much as were the bakers. Between ethanol and even C.R.P., the bakers still may not be granted everything they want. But now, at least everyone is speaking the same language.

There is a long way to go and it will be done inch by inch, but it is going forward.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Obesity rates climb in 37 states

Adult obesity rates increased in a mind-boggling 37 states during the past year, up from 31 states during the previous year, according to the report "F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing in America, 2007."

"America’s future depends on the health of our country," said Jeff Levi, Ph.D., executive director of the Trust for America’s Health, the organization that produced the report. "The obesity epidemic is lowering our productivity and dramatically increasing our health care costs. Our analysis shows that we’re not treating the obesity epidemic with the urgency it deserves."

The report, which covered all 50 states and the District of Columbia, found 24 states experienced an increase in obesity rates for the second year in a row and 19 states for a third year in a row. No states decreased.

The rate of adult obesity now exceeds 25% in 28 states, which is an increase from 19 states last year, 14 states in 2006 and 9 in 2005. As recently as 1991, no states had obesity rates of more than 20%. In 1980, the national average of obese adults was 15%.

For adult obesity rates, Mississippi once again fared the worse as it came in at 31.7%. In 2007, Mississippi was the first state to top 30%, but in the most recent year it was joined by West Virginia (30.6%) and Alabama (30.1%). Colorado once again was the best coming in at 18.4%. Eleven of the 15 states with the highest obesity rates were in the South, while Northwestern and Western states continued to have the lowest obesity rates.

The report also found the rate of type 2 diabetes, a disease typically associated with obesity, grew in 26 states last year. Four states now have diabetes rates in excess of 10%, the report said, and all 10 states with the highest rates of diabetes and hypertension are in the South.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bigger picture on health benefits of coffee

Coffee may be your favorite stimulant, but isn't it also a dangerous diuretic that has also been linked to a range of serious illnesses, including heart disease and cancer?

Well, before you let your local supplier go to the wall, it's worth getting the bigger picture on the health benefits of coffee, which has emerged from studies that have monitored large populations about several years.

The results from these long-term studies tell a very different story - showing just how badly earlier research misjudged the health benefits of the roasted bean.

· It's a complete myth that a normal cup of coffee is a diuretic. A large coffee has only 330mg of caffeine - and you have to absorb at least 550mg of caffeine in a single drink to produce dehydrating levels of urine, according to a new review of coffee studies carried out by the US Centre for Science in the Public Interest.

So you can count your morning cup of coffee as part of your daily water requirement.

· People with high blood pressure commonly avoid coffee as a stimulant that might make their condition worse.

Yet a series of large clinical trials show that the opposite is true. University of California cardiologists studied the 10 biggest trials of heart disease and recently concluded there was no evidence that coffee increases the risk of heart attack, sudden death or abnormal heart rhythms.

Most dramatically, a study of 27 000 women, followed for 15 years, found that those who drank one to three cups of coffee a day reduced their risk of heart disease by 24 percent.

While regular consumers of caffeine-rich cola are more likely to develop permanent high blood pressure, the same is not true of regular coffee drinkers, according to a 2005 study following 155 000 nurses for 12 years.

· There was widespread alarm when research published in the early 1980s suggested that coffee raises the risk of pancreatic cancer.

An international review of 66 clinical trials, published in 2007, provided final confirmation that coffee consumption is not carcinogenic - the cigarette-smoking that accompanied the coffee was the likeliest cause.

· Caffeine brings about a slight reduction in the absorption of calcium in the bones, and some scientists have claimed that people who drink coffee regularly have a higher risk of bone loss and fractures.

This is probably because coffee drinkers are less likely to have milky drinks, according to bone biologist Dr Robert Heaney of Creighton University, Omaha.

He says that the small caffeine-related increased risk of osteoporosis is easily offset by adding a couple of tablespoons of milk per cup.

· It's not imaginary: a decent cup of coffee improves your sense of well-being, happiness, energy, alertness and sociability, according to research at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

You have to drink the stuff regularly, however. Having the odd cup is likely to cause anxiety and a feeling of being unwell.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Food aid deliveries in 2007 were the lowest since 1961

In the midst of the greatest food crisis in decades, the World Food Program last week published a report with sobering data relating to the world’s commitment to food aid. The document examined food aid flows in 2007 and reported, "Food aid deliveries continued to decline in 2007, reaching the lowest level since 1961."

The W.F.P. estimated global food aid deliveries in 2007 at 5.9 million tonnes, down 15% from 7 million tonnes the year before. Food aid deliveries declined in six of the past eight years since 1999, when deliveries registered their recent high at 15 million tonnes. Food aid deliveries were nearly as low as last year in 1973, when the world experienced a food crisis as well.

"There is an urgent need to reverse this trend," W.F.P. said. "The resources available for food assistance need to increase to take immediate actions to address the serious negative effects of the higher food prices on hunger and malnutrition across the world. As a result of higher food prices, vulnerable populations, including children and women in rural and urban areas, are eating less and eating less well. They are also reducing expenditures on education and health and possibly selling productive assets to cope with the higher food prices. These consequences are long lasting, sometimes covering a lifetime. Food assistance is needed to prevent these effects."

Each category of food aid – emergency, project and program – declined in 2007. Of the 5.9 million tonnes of food aid deliveries in 2007, 3.7 million tonnes were for emergency distribution, 1.4 million tonnes were for project distribution and 0.9 million tonnes were for program support. Emergency food aid is destined for free distribution to victims of natural or manmade disasters. Project food aid supports specific poverty-reduction and disaster-prevention activities and is usually distributed directly to target populations, though some food may be sold on the open market to raise funds for the relevant projects in a process known as monetization. Program food aid is usually supplied on a government-to-government basis as a resource transfer for balance-of-payments or budgetary support.

Emergency food aid delivered in 2007 was 14% less than in 2006. Project food aid declined 16% from 2006, and program food aid deliveries dropped 17% from the year before.

The W.F.P. said the decline in food aid deliveries between 2000 and 2007 may be explained partly by rising prices. "If 2000 prices had prevailed in 2007, it would have been possible to deliver 6.6 million tonnes of maize, rice and wheat, which is nearly double the actual deliveries (of those commodities) in 2007," the W.F.P. explained. Also adversely affecting food aid deliveries were rising energy costs. "Thus, for given budgets, fewer tons of food aid can be delivered."

The increases in food aid funding announced in recent weeks – principally the $755 million raised by the W.F.P. and $950 million as committed by President Bush – aimed primarily to ensure food aid volume is not reduced from earlier budgeted volumes. Additional resources were expected to be required in the next several years as the world seeks to rebuild badly diminished grain stocks.

The U.S. remained the principal food aid donor in 2007, accounting for 2.6 million tonnes of the 5.9 million tonnes delivered. The European Union and its member states accounted for 1.5 million tonnes in delivered food aid.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When Chocolate Isn't the Answer

Legend has it that chocolate can cure tuberculosis, fever and the common cold. It is an aphrodisiac and increases the probability of conception. It invigorates the body, strengthens the limbs and increases alertness. And every woman knows it is her best friend for whatever emotion she is feeling.

Chocolate flavor also marries well with most bakery applications. Yet "real" chocolate, in its many ingredient forms as defined by the Food and Drug Administration (21 CFR§163), is not always the answer in the world of bakery. The moisture levels and fat systems of many baked foods are not compatible with real chocolate. Further, real chocolate tends to melt just below body temperature. No one wants the chocolate drizzle on their cookie to melt off before a bite is taken.

Just think about the iconic "melt-in-your-mouth, not-in-your-hand" M&M’s. These button-shaped candies were designed to satisfy chocolate cravings of WWII soldiers stationed overseas. Their coating helps maintain product integrity in temperatures where unprotected chocolate melts.

The crunch of the M&M can be described as a candy coating. Other high-melt coatings have been developed since and are used on or in an array of bakery applications where standardized chocolate ingredients don’t make functional or financial sense. These ingredients are referred to as confectionary or compound coatings.

A WORLD OF COATINGS. To understand coatings, one must first gain a better understanding of what constitutes real chocolate. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) specifies nomenclature for chocolate products, which includes the term chocolate coatings.

"True chocolate coatings — bittersweet, milk and white — are all defined under standards of identity in the US, which specify required levels of cacao-derived ingredients, limit the source of sweeteners and restrict use of certain other ingredients including emulsifiers, flavors and antioxidants," explained Adam Lechter, product service and development manager, ADM Cocoa, Milwaukee, WI.

Courtney LeDrew, marketing specialist, Cargill Cocoa & Chocolate, Minneapolis, MN, added, "The main difference between chocolate coatings and other coatings is that chocolate must contain cocoa butter. Generally speaking, anything not meeting the chocolate standard of identity is considered a confectionary or compound coating."

The CFR also includes specifications for "sweet cocoa," "sweet chocolate" and "milk chocolate" and vegetable fat coating. However, the language is not very attractive, and most suppliers and food manufacturers prefer to say "compound coating" when referring to a nonstandardized chocolate-like coating.

Although many coatings are designed to mimic real chocolate, including cocoa is not a prerequisite. The term compound coating is reserved for chocolate-flavored coatings prepared from cocoa or chocolate liquor, sugar, possibly milk and vegetable oil. Confectionary coatings tend not to be chocolate-flavored.

"Confectionary coatings are typically thought of as those products made with a wide variety of vegetable oils, flavors, sweeteners and/or colors," Ms. LeDrew said. "An example of a confectionary coating would be a cherry-flavored pink drop that may be used in bakery applications such as a muffin."

Mr. Lechter said, "Confectionary and compound coatings are ‘free’ from standards of identity and are limited in ingredient makeup only by our imagination. They can come in a wide variety of melting ranges, colors, flavors and nutritional properties."

Thus, non-standardized coatings allow for greater flexibility in applications.

"Because confectionary and compound coatings do not have a standard of identity, different fat systems can be used, depending upon functional and technical requirements," said Megan Rose, marketing representative, Clasen Quality Coatings, Inc. (CQC), Middleton, WI. "Such systems include tropical fats such as palm kernel and coconut oils or domestic ones such as soybean or cottonseed oils.

"Using a domestic fat system in a coating for a baked product provides a coating that is compatible with fat systems used in most baked products," Ms. Rose continued. "It also results in a more pliable coating, which can be easier to apply on softer baked products."

Further, the cocoa butter in real chocolate requires tempering prior to coating, enrobing or decorating a bakery product. The tempering process ensures that the cocoa butter in chocolate hardens in a uniform crystal structure. Tempered chocolate has a smooth texture, a glossy shine and a pleasant snap when bitten or broken. Chocolate that is not tempered might be cloudy, gray, lumpy and sticky at room temperature.

"Confectionary and compound coating fat systems do not require tempering and can have a range of melt points from 76° to 110°F," said Rose Defiel, director of technology at CQC. "Since confectionery coatings do not require tempering, special tempering equipment is not required to apply coatings to baked items. The coatings just need to be properly melted and cooled.

"The melting points of confectionery and compound coatings can also be adjusted," Ms. Defiel added. "They will not melt at the same low temperature that chocolate does. This improves the stability of the finished product during shipping and will help reduce the amount of bloom the product develops caused by minor mishandling. Additionally, many different types of functional ingredients can be added to coatings."

For example, CQC produces a nutritionally enhanced line of coatings called IMPAC, which is a customized product line that can be fortified to deliver ingredients such as protein (dairy or soy), fiber, calcium, phytosterols and even probiotics. "This product line was designed to deliver supplements through a coating and enhance the overall flavor of the finished product," Ms. Rose said. "It is available in milk, dark, white, yogurt and peanut butter bases."

UNLIMITED INNOVATION. Federal food standards of identity were developed to protect consumers from nutritional and economic fraud by establishing standardized names and characteristics for select products. However, food scientists and food manufacturers often find working within the boundaries of standards a daunting task. Thus, thinking outside the box, or outside the CFR, provides liberties needed for innovation.

"Confectionery coatings allow food scientists to get creative with their new product developments," Ms. Rose said. "They offer the ability to deviate beyond standard milk, dark and white chocolate products. Our peanut coatings are a great example of this. The addition of a peanut drop or drizzle to a baked bar, brownie or cookie can greatly enhance the overall taste of the product. CQC peanut flavor profiles range from smooth and creamy to rich and hearty in light, medium to dark brown roasts."

At this year’s IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo at New Orleans, LA, the company launched a line of organic confectionery coatings, CQ-Organics, which come in dark, white, yogurt and peanut formulations. "This product line was created to meet consumer-driven demand for healthier food products developed with ecologically friendly source ingredients," Ms. Rose said.

Kerry Ingredients & Flavours, Beloit, WI, adds omega-3s to all types of coatings, including pure chocolate and compound coatings. The latter is customizable for melt point. A no-sugar-added option is also available.

At IFT, Kerry showcased its sweet coatings on a variety of applications. Because consumers often taste with their eyes, a drizzle of caramel-flavored coating was the final touch on Kerry’s Fiber Slim Bar, a meal replacement bar containing 9 g of fiber. There was also the power-packed 180 Bar loaded with fiber and plant sterols to assist with reducing blood cholesterol levels. The bar’s top layer is a chocolate-flavored coating, which sandwiches a layer of gooey caramel between the chewy grains.

"Compound coatings may be used in a variety of ways to enhance the eating quality and visual appeal of a bakery product such as a bar, cookie or snack cake," Mr. Lechter said. "A product can be fully enrobed, bottomed, drizzled or decorated with a pattern of compound coating. Compound coatings may also be used as inclusions inside of a bar or snack much like a chocolate chunk or chip would be used."

Ms. Defiel added, "Cereal pieces or clusters can be panned with confectionery coatings for use as an inclusion or topping on a variety of grain-based foods."

ISSUES AND CONCERNS. Confectionary and compound coatings are not foolproof. A common problem in compound coatings is a dull appearance when they are not properly heated and cooled. For example, a dull appearance can result when the cooling tunnel is not cool enough, as the compound coating will not set properly. Further, if the humidity in the cooling tunnel and packaging room is too high, this additional moisture will dull the coatings.

Other problems common in compound coatings are greasiness and waxiness. Non-lauric fats such as soybean or cottonseed oils are greasier than lauric fats such as palm kernel and coconut oils, as lauric acid is a highly stable saturated fatty acid. Further, the higher the melting point of the fat, the waxier the compound coating.

The pressure on bakers to eliminate trans fatty acids from their products required coating suppliers to reformulate some recipes. Traditionally compound coatings relied on cocoa butter replacements such as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which contain high levels of trans fatty acids.

There are two approaches to make a trans-fat-free coating. One option is to use a vegetable fat with similar composition and properties to cocoa butter. In most cases, they are cocoa butter equivalents used at a much higher level than would generally be permitted in chocolate. This allows a manufacturer to make a coating that while less expensive than chocolate, is more expensive than the partially hydrogenated compound coating. It may also require tempering.

The other option is to move use a lauric fat in the coating. This allows the manufacturer to make a compound coating with a similar cost structure to that of the partially hydrogenated compound coating, but other factors must be considered such as the increase in saturated fat content. Historically, many compound coatings contained some cocoa butter to better mimic real chocolate flavor and mouthfeel. The partially hydrogenated non-lauric fats used in the original high-trans-fat coatings had a limited tolerance to cocoa butter such that up to 20% of the fat phase of the coating could be cocoa butter. If these non-lauric compound fats are directly replaced with a lauric fat and the same level of cocoa butter is used, fat bloom forms on the coating. This is because lauric fats have little or no tolerance to the presence of cocoa butter. Thus, flavor can be compromised in the lauric fat coating.

Nomenclature is not always attractive either. "Because compound coatings are not real chocolate, they must be labeled as such. Often products containing compounds are referred to as ‘chocolatey’ or ‘chocolate-flavored,’" Ms. LeDrew added. The same holds true with confectionary coatings. For example, a cherry drizzle on a breakfast bar might be labeled as "artificially flavored cherry coating."

It is imperative that bakers work closely with coating suppliers so that the right melt, mouthfeel and flavor profile are obtained. Further, coatings can be selected to meet a product’s nutritional and labeling requirements.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Oil combo to facilitate trans-fat free margarine: study

A blend of canola oil, palm stearin, and palm kernel oil can produce margarine free of trans-fats and desirable textural properties, says new research from the US.

Tapping into the wider industry move to reduce or remove the presence of trans-fatty acids from products, Byung Hee Kim and co-workers from the University of Georgia extended research into the potential of structured lipids (SLs) to provide alternatives to the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil.

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the Athens, Georgia-based researchers report that interesterification of canola oil, palm stearin, and palm kernel oil blends, particularly in the ratio 50:30:20 and 60:25:15, produced ‘margarines’ with similar properties to commercial trans margarine fats and commercial trans-free margarine.

“Canola oil, palm stearin, and palm kernel oil-based SLs were suitable for formulating trans-free margarines with low atherogenicity and desirable textural properties,” wrote Kim.

Trans fats and heart health

Though trace amounts of trans fats are found naturally, in dairy and meats, the vast majority are formed during the partial hydrogenation of vegetable oil (PHVO) that converts the oil into semi-solids for a variety of food applications.

Trans fats are attractive for the food industry due to their extended shelf life and flavor stability, and have displaced natural solid fats and liquid oils in many areas of food processing.

But scientific reports that trans fatty acids raise serum levels of LDL-cholesterol, reduce levels of HDL-cholesterol, can promote inflammation can cause endothelial dysfunction, and influence other risk factors for cardiovascular diseases (CVD), has led to a well-publicized bans in New York City restaurants, and other cities, like Boston and Chicago, considering similar measures.

In the food industry this has been mirrored by an increase the in pressure on food manufacturers to reduce or remove trans fatty acids from their products and reformulate.

On-going research

“Margarine manufacturers have also been developing several alternatives to the partial hydrogenation process to reduce or eliminate TFAs in their products, resulting in low-trans or trans-free margarines,” explained the researchers. “The use of structured lipids (SLs) is one of the most successful alternatives.”

Kim and co-workers investigated the potential of the difference blends of the three oils to formulate the trans-free margarines. The heart health properties were determined using fatty acid profiles, while the physical and textural properties of the resulting SLs were also considered.

Our of all the blends tested, the researchers report that the blends of canola oil, palm stearin, and palm kernel oil in the ratio 50:30:20 and 60:25:15 produced margarine-like products with similar properties as those found in commercial margarines containing trans fats or commercial trans-free alternatives.

“Therefore, [CO/PS/PKO-based SLs with ratios 50:30:20 and 60:25:15] were considered to be most suitable for the formulation of trans-free margarines that have low atherogenicity and desirable textural properties,” concluded the researchers.