Coffee, Conspiracy, and Citizen Science: An Introduction to Iodometry

I take coffee very seriously. It’s probably the most important meal of the day, and apparently the largest overall dietary source of antioxidants in the United States of America. Regardless of whether you believe antioxidants have a health effect (I’m skeptical), that’s interesting!

Unfortunately, industrially roasted and ground coffee is sometimes adulterated with a variety of unwanted ‘other stuff’: corn, soybeans, wheat husks, etc. Across Southeast Asia, there’s a lot of concern over food adulteration and safety in general, as the cost-driven nature of the market pushes a minority of vendors to dishonest business practices. Here in Vietnam, one of the specific rumors is that coffee from street vendors is not actually coffee, but unsafe chemical flavoring agents mixed with corn silk, roasted coconut husks, and soy. Local news reported that 30% of street coffee doesn’t even contain caffeine.

While I’ve heard some pretty fanciful tales told at street side coffee shops, some of them turned out to be based on some grain (bean?) of truth, and local news has certainly featured it often enough. Then again, I’ve been buying coffee at the same friendly street vendors for years, and take some offense at unfounded accusations directed at them.

This sounds like a job for science, but what can we use to quantify the purity of many coffee samples without spending a fortune? As usual, the solution to the problem (pun intended) was already in the room:

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