Shellac on Coffee Beans?

by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director

In response to The VRG’s 2010 articles on shellac, a concerned reader wrote in wondering how likely it is that shellac serves as a coating on coffee beans, and, if so, if it would be stated on the label.

When The VRG asked Starbucks Coffee and Whole Foods if shellac were applied as a coating to coffee beans in this country right before being sold or grounded, both companies responded with a definitive “no.” Starbucks said: “We do not use shellac on our beans.” Whole Foods said: “Nothing is added to our coffee beans. As coffee is roasted the oils inside the beans are brought to the surface. Darker roasted coffees are going to be shinier and have more oils on the surface than a light roasted coffee.”

Folger’s Coffee also said that nothing is added to their coffee beans. However, when asked if the beans may have been treated soon after harvesting in other countries before they are bagged for shipment to the United States, a Folger’s customer service representative said “to the best of my knowledge, no. I’ll send the question to our research department for an answer.” We don’t yet have an answer to this question.

The VRG also spoke to two companies that sell shellac. Both said that shellac may be used as a coating on coffee beans. In fact, one company put it this way when asked if he had ever heard of shellac being used as a coating on coffee beans: “Of course. All the time. It is used to extend the shelf life of the beans.” He supplied the contact information for a Canadian company using shellac in this way.

We asked the shellac companies if shellac may more likely be applied to flavored coffee beans than non-flavored ones thinking that possibly the shellac would serve to keep the flavor coating on the beans. It was explained to us that a gum or starch ingredient (most likely vegetable based) would adhere the flavoring to the bean keeping the flavor in place. Shellac, if used at all, would be used as a top layer to make the beans shiny.

According to food laws set forth by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, coffee beans coated with shellac would have to be labeled as such, just as in the case of fruits or vegetables. “Lac resin” is the most common alternative name among several possibilities. The VRG would hope that a shellac coating be labeled regardless of when the shellac was applied at any point during processing, either here or abroad, as food laws indicate. We are continuing to search for a definitive answer regarding how coffee beans are processed from coffee plant to cup to determine, where, if at all, shellac would most likely be applied.

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