While some coffee drinkers may be purists, preferring the deep and rich flavor that coffee naturally has, some may enjoy the addition of creamer, to lighten up the experience. Others may gravitate towards flavored coffees, seeking a spicier or sweeter style of beverage. These flavored coffees can come in an almost infinite variety of flavors, but the ways the coffee receives this flavor can be equally varied and complex. We are going to have a look at the burning question of how is coffee flavored.
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What Is Flavored Coffee?
The difference between flavored coffee and any regular coffee is the flavoring. Flavorings can be added in a variety of ways, including natural spices and extracts, or synthetic flavor agents. Flavoring techniques can have an impact on taste and quality, as well as potentially adding residual chemicals to the beans.
Flavored coffee is essentially the same as any coffee. The coffee bean, blend, roast style, and other characteristics do not necessarily change when a flavor is added. So, if a flavored coffee begins with a medium roast arabica bean, it remains a medium roast arabica bean after flavoring.
How is Coffee Flavored?
Flavored coffee includes an incredibly wide range of flavors and flavoring techniques. While no flavoring technique is necessarily better than another, each technique has its own characteristics and additives. Generally, flavoring can be divided into three main categories: direct flavoring from food or spice itself, natural extracts concentrated from the base food or spice, and synthetic flavoring that attempts to mimic the flavors of a natural source.
Adding real foods, herbs, spices, and nuts is an easy way to add flavor to coffee. While roasters and coffee shops can use this method for flavored blends, it is also easy to do at home. The added foods can be ground in with the coffee beans or added while brewing the coffee itself. For example, cinnamon sticks and cardamon pods can be crushed and placed in a French press to steep with the beans.
Common natural flavorings added in their natural state include cinnamon, vanilla bean, cardamon, star anise, cloves, hazelnuts, and many others. While the taste and aroma of coffee flavored this way may not be as intense, it is the best way to keep the integrity of the coffee beans and flavoring. It is also the most natural flavoring method.
Coffee can also be flavored naturally using extracts and oils derived from a natural food source, including fruits, spices, and nuts. Natural flavors and extracts are made with water-based solvents and natural oils, so there are no chemical additives in these products.
While extracts and oils are a natural flavoring option, they are also very concentrated and intensely flavored. The aroma and taste of the concentrated food item will be particularly strong, and adding creamers and sweeteners often intensifies these flavors when drinking the coffee. While this flavoring method is natural, it tends to overpower some of the natural characteristics of coffee beans.
Another common flavoring method, especially in larger, mass-produced coffee brands, is using synthetic flavor compounds. These flavoring agents are created in labs to mimic the taste of a specific natural food item, such as vanilla. While there are some synthetic flavorings that incorporate natural ingredients, they are usually not natural forms of the taste being mimicked. Synthetic flavors are often chemical-based, commonly using chemicals such as dimethyl and acetylthiazole.
To be properly incorporated with the beans or ground coffee, additional chemicals are used to adhere the flavoring to the coffee. The most common chemical for this is propylene glycol, which adds an artificial sweetness to the coffee. While artificially flavored coffee can taste great, it often overpowers the coffee itself. Synthetic flavoring also tends to leave a thick, oily, or sticky residue on the coffee beans. This residue can be damaging to grinders over time.
Does Coffee Flavoring Damage Quality?
Usually added flavorings do not change any of the nutritional or health factors of coffee. While some flavorings could contain allergens, they do not add calories, sugars, fats, etc. Nutritionally, the cup of coffee is the same.
The beans themselves, in theory, should be the same quality. However, many artificially flavored coffees cover up much of the natural coffee taste, masking the quality of the bean. Mass-produced flavored coffee often uses cheaper, lower-quality beans since it is hidden under the added flavoring.
Depending on a consumer’s opinion of what constitutes “quality,” the chemical additives of some flavored coffee may also be considered detrimental to quality. If a flavored coffee begins with high-quality beans, and uses more natural methods of flavoring, there should be no difference in the quality of that cup of coffee.
Flavored coffee can also impact the brewing process. Because of the additives, whether whole spices, extracts, or synthetics, the consistency of the ground coffee is often different. This can cause clogging in some styles of brewing, impacting water flow. Reduced water flow may negatively impact the coffee flavor.
Is Flavored Coffee Safe to Drink?
Any naturally flavored coffee is just as safe as an unflavored coffee. Whole foods and spices, or their extracts, are normal for human consumption and should have no impact on the health factors of drinking coffee. However, it is important to check what these ingredients might be for individuals with food allergies.
The safety of synthetically flavored coffees is far more complicated. Although synthetic flavorings use a variety of chemical additives, they are FDA approved and recognized as generally safe. Overconsumption of flavored coffees may elevate any risk associated with these chemicals.
Despite the overall safety of these products, some of the chemicals can be slightly alarming. For example, propylene glycol is the most common additive for adhering synthetic flavors to coffee. In addition to its use in coffee and some other packaged foods, propylene glycol is often used in pharmaceuticals and antifreeze. It is also known to be a skin and eye irritant.
The Final Sip
Flavored coffee is a broad term applied to any coffee with some type of food, extract, or chemical added for a particular taste profile. Coffees flavored with foods, spices, nuts, etc. are the mildest and most natural varieties of flavored coffee, and they are incredibly easy to blend at home. Coffees flavored with oils and extracts can be just as natural, and also provide a more intense flavor to the coffee.
Synthetically flavored coffees using chemical additives are also extremely common, especially among large-scale coffee companies. These flavors can also be very intense and popular due to their sweet profile. While there are some uncertainties surrounding the quality of flavored coffees, it is important for each coffee drinker to find a blend they enjoy and make their own educated decision about their chosen beverage.