CHICORY – THE COLONIAL ADULTERANT?
BY VIJAYAN RAJES
PARTNER, MSP PLANTATIONS, CAUVERY PEAK COFFEE ROASTERS FORMER VICE CHAIRMAN, COFFEE BOARD OF INDIA
FORMER PRESIDENT, UNITED PLANTERS’ ASSOCIATION OF SOUTHERN INDIA (UPASI),
PLANTERS’ ASSOCIATION OF TAMILNADU (PAT)
CHAIRMAN – SHEVAROY PLANTERS’ ASSOCIATION (SPA)
Chicory is widely used in India and Africa to substitute and adulterate coffee.
Chicory root is derived from the root of the cichorium intybus plant which has been cultivated since ancient Egypt. It is a bienial crop native to Europe (Mediterranean). It was used as a western herbal medicine and discontinued due its side effects.
Chicory became popular in 18th century France when coffee was scarce during the Napoleonic wars. It was used as an additive or adulterant to overcome the shortage of coffee. It became an essential commodity which helped keep the troops supplied uninterruptedly with hot coffee-chicory admixture, particularly in the cold winter months. After the battle of Waterloo in 1815 which ended the Napoleonic Wars, relative peace prevailed in Europe, till the First World War in 1914. During this time the British East India Company, the Francophone countries of Africa and the Dutch East India Company flooded Europe with fine coffees from their colonies. The importance of chicory faded and was almost forgotten till the two world wars erupted in the 20th century. Hitler’s blockade of the Suez Canal choked the supply of coffee from East Africa, South Asia and East Asia to Europe. Chicory reared its ugly head again in Europe to help adulterate and cope with the scarce supply of coffee for the Allied and Facist troops alike. Like they say, an army moves on its stomach!
Somewhere between the two world wars, the colonial masters in Europe decided that it was enough for the ‘natives’ in the colonies to drink coffee, adulterated with chicory, saving the pure coffee for themselves. The British in India did not care
about the inferior coffee available in British India, because they drank tea, gin or whisky any way!
Coffee trade became a highly profitable and lucrative business. Raw Coffee became the second highest traded commodity in value globally, next only to crude oil. The post world war 2 recovery of Europe saw a resurgence in the demand for quality coffee. The US economic aid under the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe ensured Western Europe’s treasurers were full. The demand for high quality coffee soared even higher.
The marketing departments of the Indian roaster-retailers (which were sterling companies controlled from Europe) ingrained in the minds of one generation of Indian coffee connoisseurs, that coffee only tasted good and the colour looked right if it was blended with chicory. The power of marketing and the shortage of coffee prevailed over good sense. The fine coffee connoisseurs in India were conned into believing a myth created by the power of advertising and marketing.
The export of coffee from India, to earn valuable foreign exchange for the newly independent India was high priority. The newly independent nation, adopted a socialistic economic model, which required foreign exchange and capital to set up state run industries. The export of coffee from India became such a high priority for the Ministry of Commerce that import of chicory and chicory seeds were permitted in the 1950s, against earnings from coffee exports. Chicory cultivation in Gujarat, UP, MP and Andhra Pradesh was taken up to substitute the shortage of coffee, which as a priority of state policy was exported.
It has taken more than half a century, a new generation and globalization for the Indian coffee connoisseur to overcome the myth of coffee and chicory. Chicory is not coffee. Nor does it come from a coffee bean. According to Word Web it is “the root of the chicory plant, roasted and ground to substitute for or adulterate coffee”.
Chicory costs only one fourth the price of arabica coffee and does not contain any caffeine. Chicory only mimics a bitter coffee taste. Roasted chicory contains none of the volatile oils and aromatics that are contained in roasted coffee.
However, it contains higher Total Soluble Solids (TSS) which allows a yield of 45 to 65% of soluble extractive matter, while coffee yields only 20 to 25%. The net result being that in a 50:50 coffee chicory admixture, the level of chicory will be much higher than 50% in the cup. More the chicory, more the number of cups that can be served. Perfect recipe for a profit minded hotelier.
Commercial roaster-retailers and traders squeeze the producers and procure carefully prepared coffees at cheap rates. This is relatively easy as more than 70 countries produce coffee globally. These carefully produced coffees are then blended with cheaper inferior coffees or adulterated with chicory, packaged and retailebitant prices. The net result being the grower gets low prices for carefully nurtured coffee and the consumer gets inferior blended coffees at exhorbitant prices.
The two components of chicory that cause the bitter taste are lactucin and lactacoprin. These two components affect the central nervous system by relaxing it, according to Dr.Carla Goddard on the searchwarp.com and livestrong.com websites. If you want coffee to perk you up in the morning, chicory blended with coffee is not the best choice.
Chicory may stimulate the uterus and in turn result in menstruation, which could risk abortion in a pregnant woman according to Dr. Linda B. White M.D. on the childbirth solutions inc website. It is advised to avoid using chicory root during pregnancy and breastfeeding since it has stimulatory effects on menstruation.
According to the Ohio State University, there haye been reports of contact dermatitis when handling Chicory. Contact dermatitis can involve a wide spectrum of side effects like inflammation of the skin. Handling or consuming Chicory root extract may result in hives, intensive itching, swelling, wheezing, dizziness, pale skin or loss of consciousness.
The Coffee Board of India has wisely persuaded the Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to reduce the permitted chicory mix content in coffee from 50% to 30%. A draft notification has also been issued by FSSAI. This is a step in the right direction. Eventually, chicory content should be reduced to 0 %.
The roaster retailers and hoteliers are strenuously objecting to change, as the past seven decades have been very lucrative and has optimized their profit margins. Their primary defense is that the customer is king and they should decide what to consume. They imply that the Indian consumer preferred coffee-chicory blends. It is deja vu, that cheap chicory is widely used to adulterate coffee predominantly in India and Africa, the former colonies. If you ever wondered why the filter coffee at home does not taste the same anymore as it did where your grandmother brewed it for you decades ago, this is your answer. The more the chicory, the more the profit margin for roaster-retailers and hoteliers. It does not bring any positive attribute to the flavour, aroma and colour of good quality coffee.
The initial steps taken by the FSSAI and Coffee Board of India to reduce chicory, from 50% to 30% is a welcome and positive development for the both coffee producers and coffee consumers. Chicory should eventually be reduced to 0%. Chicory should be sold separately, and then the consumer truly will be the king to decide whether to add it to Coffee along with milk and sugar.