Being in the coffee industry for nearly 20 years, my professional experience is in the manufacturing (roasting) distribution (shipping, delivery), café management, all the way down to the coffee shop level brewing cups of coffees for Mr. and Mrs. America. This business to business and direct business to consumer interactions over that time-period has allowed me to contact all sorts of folks, each one different then the next, but I have heard many of the same stories, complaints, concerns, as it relates to coffee lovers and the affects or this highly acidic beverage on their physiology.
It was many years ago when I ran into my 1st story of a GERD sufferer and how that individual was negatively impacted when they drank coffee. In case you're new to the subject, the acronym GERD stands for Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). If you are not familiar with GERD, my simple non medical definition is GERD occurs when stomach acid flows the wrong way(1). GERD and GERD related symptoms result in pain and discomfort that many Americans suffer daily.
Many people are diagnosed each year and many more suffer undiagnosed. Doctors and other medical professionals as well as non medical professionals recommend to patients to adjust their daily dietary consumption to help with symptoms. Many recommend eliminating consumption of high acid foods and beverages altogether, including coffee. Research studies and the science may suggest that high acid foods and drinks can have a negative effect on the body. In fact, because many people suffer from a physiological sensitivity to acid in their daily food and beverage consumption, the growing popularity of low acid diets and food choices has soared. The good news is there may be options for many people. The problem for coffee drinkers is this; coffee is inherently very high in acid. This places people with GERD and similar gastroesophageal issues with the hard choice of having to give up coffee or suffer through that morning cup of “get me up”.
As the popularity of low acid diets have increased, food science has continued to grow, along with more choices for consumers, who suffer with GERD. While the growth of low acid food and beverage options has increased, sometimes all those choices; with the marketing and other jargon, can make finding what works for you especially difficult as the niche market of low acid has grown. Things can get very confusing.
What to Look For:As most things, how can you cut through all the noise and find what you need and what will work for you, both quickly and easily. I will give you four things to consider when looking for a low acid coffee. I will also give you a tool; a measuring stick, to help guide your selection of the coffee that will have the highest probability of working for you if you suffer from GERD or similar conditions. The nice thing about this approach and the tool is that it is vendor neutral and it works on all coffees.
Here are 4 things to consider:
- Roast methodology
- Customer Testimony - GERD sufferers
- Food Science Journals
- Independent Lab analysis. Laboratory Testing
1. Roast Methodology:
In short, what is the approach to the roast, i.e. the series of steps that are roast related that will produce low acid coffee. Why is that important? Simply, all non- roast related procedures have at best a moderate to little effect on acidity levels in coffee. In fact, some of the most popular reasons that are given as to why a coffee is low in acid is that special beans are used like naturals or certain coffees might be less acidic than others. Those reasons are mostly meaningless and here is why.
Coffee Preparation or the processing of the green (raw) coffee bean from the coffee cherry where it is grown in the country of origin, can have a slight effect on the acidity levels.
An increasingly popular method of processing coffee is “natural” coffees or sun dried. Much is said about coffees being “naturals”, but the term “naturals” can be very misleading. “Naturals” are not any more natural than traditional “washed” coffees. Naturals are simply patio dried for several weeks before the coffee bean (seed) is removed from the coffee cherry. Due to the extended drying process, a mini fermentation process begins, which leads to the yielding a more fruity flavor and reportedly a slightly less acidity.
If you are considering buying a low acid coffee because it’s “natural” or sun dried, be very cautious because any decrease in acidity would be very small. The reason is just mostly noise. There are many other suspect reasons used today to justify a coffee being low acid but I will save that for another article.
The point here is that if you want significant reduction on acidity levels in your cup, it's pretty much all about the roast. The greatest and most significant impact to reduce acid levels in the coffee is the roast. This is how the coffee roaster roasts the coffee for you. It's that simple. This is the whole thing right here, the roast. I can take any coffee; naturals, european prep, semi-washed, fully-washed, and I can make them all very low in acid. Slow roasted, I can roast any coffee regardless of preparation, make them very low acid upwards of 90% or less acid.
2. The Food Science Journals:
It's what the food science journals tell us, as documented by many studies they have reported on going back to the 1980’s. If you want to significantly reduce coffee acidity, there are major methodologies that must be followed.
The application of 1) sufficient heat over a 2) sufficient time. I know of virtually no coffee roasters in the U.S. which achieve both the temperatures and have the length of roasts to seriously impact acidity.
In fact, the new trend (third wave) in coffee roasting is shorter roasts and lower temperatures, which yield a much brighter and fruity cup of coffee. These coffees have a much higher level of acidity. This has given rise to the popularity of the aforementioned “natural” coffees, which have a more intense fruit taste. If the coffee you are considering has fruity notes, it probably isn't low acid.
I won't bore you with the details of the food science journals I have had to trudge through. I will say this, I was actually roasting coffee this way for 10 years before I ever picked up a Food science journal on this issue to only find it confirmed what I already knew to be true; based on my own experience, and what my customers that have GERD, Barrett's Syndrome, Interstitial Cystitis and other condition have told me by phone, email, and in person over the years. That slow roasting coffee makes it low acid. You must have sufficient time and temperature. It's a scientific fact. Which leads me to my third point: Laboratory Analysis.
3. The Laboratory Analysis: Independent, 3 party, pH Scale
“Trust but verify” as they say. When you are looking for a low acid coffee. Look for third party analysis. If they don’t have it, look for coffee somewhere else. It's one thing to be taken for a few bucks, it's another to be subjected to pain and suffering needlessly. Don’t fall for litmus tests or other “in house” tests as a replacement for true laboratory analysis to determine if a coffee is low acid. If an independent lab can’t verify it, move on. You need to get a pH score. If the coffee is not scored independently beware. The pH score is your go to tool. More about that in a minute. This brings me to my last point, Lastly, consumer reviews, or feedback, i.e. results.
4. Customer Testimony - GERD sufferers
Does this coffee work for people. Look for customer feedback. Did it work for someone else? Don’t fall for a few quotes on a website. You are looking for real reviews, submitted by real people and verified by a third party (i.e. YOTPO or Trust Pilot). You want real customer reviews from real people with GERD, acid reflux, etc. Science is important, but it has to work for people too. Otherwise, who cares what the scientists say.
Your Tool for Success: Know the score.Now, how to use the pH scale as a tool to help you find a low acid coffee. It's all in the pH score. Think of the pH scale as your ruler, which will gauge the acidity of a coffee. The higher pH score the better. The pH score is simply the measure on the pH scale that the coffee archives when tested. On the acidic side of the scale 1 to 6, 1 is the most acidic, think battery acid and 7 is neutral, i.e. water. Based on the logarithmic nature of the scale every .1 change is 10%.
For example, from a pH score of 4.8 to a 5.5 is 70% less acidic. Higher number the better. Here is a tip,I have learned over the years: if the pH score of a coffee is not greater than pH 5.5, I would not bother with it.
I am not a doctor, I am not a food scientist, nor am I a lab technician, my profession is coffee roasting. If you want the simplest and most effective means to reduce acidity in a coffee bean it is how you roast it and that can be easily verified by a simple independent pH test. Hope that helps you in your search.