Good morning! If you’re anything like us, your morning routine involves fumbling for the alarm clock, scanning email, and pouring a bucket-size cup of coffee. Even on the toughest mornings – a mid-winter Monday with snow on the ground, the house creaking quietly and dawn still several shades of dark away – the scent of that strong black liquid coursing into a mug is enough to raise even the gloomiest of spirits. What did we do before coffee? Globally, it is estimated that we drink no fewer than 2.2 billion – yes, that’s with a ‘b’ – cups each day.(1) Second to a similarly viscous black liquid – crude oil – coffee is the most valuable commercially traded product and one coffee chain, the seemingly ubiquitous Starbucks, has over 13,000 stores in the U.S. alone.(2) So, yes, it’s true, the impression that there’s a Starbucks on every corner is just about right.
And although the meteoric rise in popularity of the ground bean is relatively new, the beverage has long been beloved of those in need of a pick-me-up. Although the origins of the drink are lost in the decidedly undercaffeinated mists of time, folklore has it that a goat herder – or alternatively a monk – first observed the effects of eating the red fruit in his goats (or alternatively his brother monks) and began to incorporate the plant into his diet. And from humble beginnings, the beverage spread. Originally first cultivated in Yemen, Persia, Turkey, and Syria, public coffee houses in the Arabian Peninsula became gathering points, places for civic engagement and the dissemination of information and culture, commonly termed ‘Schools of the Wise.’(3)
When Europeans brought the beans home, official approval of the drink some termed the ‘bitter invention of Satan’ was sought from Pope Clement VIII. Fortunately for coffee lovers, the Pope enjoyed his beverage, stimulating the rise of coffee houses across Europe where, as their Arab cousins before them, drinkers could engage in conversation and learning at these new ‘penny universities.’(4) By the mid-17th century London boasted over 300 coffee houses, spawning both new enterprise and the bean’s move from Britain to ‘the Colonies.’ The 1773 revolt against the British tax on tea cemented coffee as the preferred national taste with Thomas Jefferson noting it to be ‘the favorite drink of the civilized world.’
And in all of this time, the one thing coffee drinkers had in common – from goat herders nibbling on coffee cherries to French philosopher Voltaire allegedly consuming 40 to 50 cups per day – was that the coffee was consumed black. Perhaps with a little sweetener, but nothing like the creamy confections we imbibe today. In fact, the contemporary latte is said to trace its roots back only to the 1950s when Lino Meiorin of Caffe Mediterraneum in Berkeley, CA, is said to have first popularized a version of an Italian staple.(5) But from that point, customer demand for milk-based coffee drinks skyrocketed, leading Starbucks alone to use more than 93 million gallons of milk per year in its beverages.
And that only takes into account cows’ milk. Step into any local coffee shop and you’ll be offered a variety of options – from dairy to soy to almond or coconut. Which is great news for cows, vegans, and those who are lactose intolerant as well as the company’s bottom line. But where to go after we’ve exhausted the plant-based milk options? With foodies demanding ever more interesting and unusual ingredients, what could be next on the menu?
Take a deep gulp of that soy cappuccino you’re drinking: things are about to get weird.
Perhaps not until now. In recent times, we have written about insects as a new source of protein and cockroaches are not only abundant and cheap, but also easy to breed and harvest. According to a CNN report, for farmers in China, one small room can host over a million individuals, a heaving, breathing, squirming mahogany blanket of bugs swarming the walls.(6) And while their needs are basic – shelter, food, minimal light – the revenue they produce can be staggeringly significant. As a cash crop, full half-ton harvests are earmarked for sale to a variety of pharmaceutical companies, which use them in preparations for stomach, liver, and heart ailments. But what’s the story with the ‘milk’? Could it be that insect milk – and specifically cockroach milk – is about to become the new darling of the hipster generation. Let’s look a little closer…
According to research by Dr. Barbara Stay, Professor Emerita at the University of Iowa, there is one species of cockroach – Diploptera punctata – that, unlike most insects, is viviparous – that is, it gives birth to live young. Native to the Hawaiian islands, this roach produces a nutritionally-dense crystalline milk packed with fats, sugars and proteins to feed its offspring. And it is so nutrient rich that it outperforms bovine milk by a factor of four and buffalo milk – otherwise held to be the gold standard of a protein-rich mammary secretion – by a factor of three. As Dr. Leonard Chavas notes in research conducted at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine in Bangalore, India, the milk contains “many essential amino acids, specific lipids and sugars, all of which representing (sic) storages of energy necessary for vital cellular events such as cell growth.”(7) And this is an observation corroborated by Stay’s X-ray analysis of the crystals.
And it is their culinary use that has researchers like Stay et al excited. Diploptera punctata – the Pacific beetle cockroach – produces a pale yellow liquid from her brood sac, the pouch in which her embryos develop. At a certain stage in their development, the embryos will feed on this milk, the liquid eventually becoming crystalline within their guts. And it was this observation that led Stay and her research team to use a filter paper in the brood sac in order to stimulate milk production and retrieval. In an August 2016 interview with NPR, Stay elaborated:
“You substitute a filter paper in the brood sac for the embryos and you leave it there [After a while] you take it out and you get the milk.”(8)
Sounds simple? Perhaps. But conventional methods of ‘milking’ simply cannot be used with roaches. As Ben Guarino of The Washington Post writes in his article:
“Lacking nipples, cockroaches cannot be milked in the county fair sense.”
Good point. Any nutritive products derived from the insect would have to come from crystals ‘extracted’ – either from the brood mother or the embryos in a complex and potentially labor-intensive process. Each individual cockroach would need to be ‘milked’ at the perfect point in her life – ideally around 54 days old when her embryos reach 40%-45% gestation. The retrieval of the crystals would involve slicing open the abdomen without crushing the insect and scooping out and storing the ‘product’ in a pH-neutral environment. A glass of almond milk suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad alternative, does it?
In addition to the difficulties inherent in extracting the cockroach product, there’s the highly unscientific but decidedly important ‘ick factor’ to surmount. As biochemist Subramanian Ramaswamy also of the research team in Bangalore, India, notes:
“I don’t think anyone is going to like it if you tell them, ‘We extracted crystals from a cockroach and that is going to be food,’ ”(9)
Both research teams see the future of cockroach proteins as supplemental ingredients in power bars or nutritional additives rather than as a replacement milk for breakfast cereals and Chavas envisions the product as being available within the next decade or so. Which gives consumers plenty of time to prepare themselves…
What coffee drinkers cannot do, however, is avoid the non-milk cockroach additive in many commercially ground coffees. In storage, it is common for piles of beans to become roach infested and, given the difficulty in removing them, it’s inevitable that some finish their lives ground up and packaged for the shelf. Which is disconcerting to say the least. However, by law it is allowable. According to current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, up to 10% of green coffee beans may be infested with insects/insect parts before action need be taken.(10) And not only is this disgusting to those amongst us who are coffee drinkers, it’s also a trigger for asthma and other allergic reactions.(11) And while we recognize these concerns, there are plenty of additional unknowns in the field of insects as food. As Ramaswarmy puts it succinctly: “In principle, it should be fine […] But today we have no evidence that it is actually safe for human consumption.” Forgive us if, for the moment at least, we stick to soymilk.
So if cockroach secretions are off the menu for you but you’re still looking for an edgy adventure in the world of caffeination where can you turn?
In California’s Napa Valley a partnership between coffee roaster John Weaver and Rick Molinari has led to the creation of the first consumer-ready coffee beans infused with wine.(12) In a process that took a full 2.5 years to perfect, coffee beans are allowed to rehydrate by relaxing in a locally-sourced house red before being dried and roasted in a small batch process. The Molinari Private Reserve is sold in the area and online and is said to be a rich, full-bodied brew with a blueberry tasting note. Suitable for use as a latte, French press, espresso, or classically black, the beverage is alcohol-free and, with its double helping of antioxidants, is said to be perfect for breakfast.
So with those ‘health benefits’ in mind, perhaps it’s time to fire up the coffee maker and brew a cup of joe? For purely medicinal purposes, you understand…
Are you a coffee lover? Would you ever consider a swirl of cockroach cream in your morning drink? Or does the idea make you reach for a bag of wine-infused beans? We’d love to know your thoughts.