COFFEE IS THE SEED OF A FRUIT?


The coffee that we drink is made from a seed found inside a fruit that grows on a shrub (or tree, if you let it grow big enough). The fruit, botanically a drupe, is often red when ripe (some varieties ripen to yellow, orange, or pink). Coffee fruits are often called cherries because they are approximately the size and color of fresh cherries (Prunus avium and P.cerasus). In between the seed and the outer skin are four other layers: the silverskin, parchment, mucilage, and pulp. All these layers have corresponding scientific terms that allow botanists to compare the seeds and fruits of different species to each other. In botanical lingo, the parts of a coffee fruit are called the embryo (this is what actually becomes the plant; the first leaves to emerge are called cotyledons); endosperm (the major part of the seed that acts as an energy and nutrient source for the embryo once the seed germinates); integument (the silverskin, which is a very thin layer covering the seed); endocarp (the parchment, which is the innermost layer of the fruit); mesocarp (the mucilage and pulp/flesh—this is typically the edible part of most fruits); and epicarp (the outer skin). 


Since coffee has a mesocarp, it seems fair to wonder whether or not it can be eaten.


Yes, it can! If this is the case, why don’t we ever see the fruit in the market place? The answer is that the fruit just isn’t all that tasty.


Coffee fruits are not very tender and thus require a good deal of chewing to break them down. They are a bit bitter and a little astringent, though less so than an unripe banana.


They are sweet, particularly the mucilage, but not sweet enough that you’d want to eat them over an apple (though if you remove the fruit and just suck on the mucilage, which adheres to the parchment, the sugar intensity is quite high and pleasant). While there’s even a little bit of caffeine in the fruit (0.36 to 1.3 percent of the fruit weight), it isn’t enough to be convincing. The unremarkable taste isn’t unreasonable, really, as humans have spent time selecting for good tasting coffee seeds, not good tasting coffee fruit.


“I have measured out my life with cof ee spoons.”


T. S. ELIOT


This isn’t to say people haven’t tried many ways to make use of the fruit. I’ve heard lots of stories of kitchen experiments: coffee fruit wine, beer, pie, smoothies… Yet, nobody has seemed to have found anything that is worth producing on a commercial scale.


Researchers have even looked into using the fruit as cattle feed, but that didn’t take, either.


Up until recently, the only thing the coffee fruit is regularly used for is as an herbal tea.


In fact, historians believe the fruit was consumed as a beverage before the seed was. When the fruit is dried, it can be rehydrated with hot water to produce a mild-tasting, fruity beverage. Currently in the United States, it can be found at various specialty coffee roasters, sold under the fancier name of cascara, a Spanish word meaning “shell” or“husk.” Some retailers blend it with other herbs to increase the taste complexity of the final beverage.


In the past decade, the coffee fruit has come to be seen and used as a nutraceutical. The fruit is high in anti-oxidants and companies have begun extracting these compounds for use in a myriad of medicinal products. Coffee fruit extracts have appeared in beverages, pills, and skin creams.


If we consider other foods we eat, it really isn’t a surprise that the coffee fruit doesn’t have much gustatory value. There are very few examples of foods where we eat both the flesh of the fruit and the seed. Why should this one be any different? 



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