Beware the Keurig

Keurig machines have revolutionized the coffee industry, but what price will you pay for a single serving of joe?

Cream and sugar? How about mold and carcinogens?

For Keurig owners, brewing the perfect cup of joe is as simple as pushing a button. No more fussing about messy coffee grounds or getting that perfect coffee-to-water ratio. The Keurig machine, owned by Keurig Green Mountain, Inc., was founded in 1998 to replace subpar coffee makers found in offices. Now countless homes and workplaces around the world proudly own a Keurig. In fact, a survey by the National Coffee Association in 2014 said that around 30 percent of Americans used a single-serving coffee maker the previous day. Popular coffee companies like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have their own K-Cups, and consumers can even make tea, hot chocolate, and warm apple cider in their machine. However, despite the ever-growing popularity of the Keurig, health professionals around the world shame the product.

To understand the health concerns, you first need to understand how the machine works. Individual servings of coffee grounds are packed into K-Cups, which are plastic containers with aluminum lids. A user inserts the K-Cup into the device, which prompts a needle to poke through the cup, and pushes a button. Heated water from the Keurig’s reservoir pushes coffee through the hole, creating a piping hot cup of joe.

Three aspects of the brewing process are worrisome: the potential for mold and bacteria growth, the plastic K-Cups, and the aluminum K-Cup lids.

Keurig machines contain parts that can easily harbor bacteria and mold. Warm, moist environments are hotbeds for bacteria, and the Keurig’s internal reservoir is constantly wet and heated. The Keurig website states, “Once your Keurig home brewer has been primed, you cannot empty the water from the inside. The internal tank of the brewer cannot be drained.” Over time, mold will grow thick along the edges of this water-filled reservoir.

The second health concern regarding Keurig machines is the plastic K-Cups. The negative effects of plastic have long been publicized. K-Cups are made with plastics free of BPA (bisphenol A), but even BPA-free plastics can have adverse effects since they contain synthetic estrogens. WebMD says these materials may contribute to cancer, diabetes, obesity, and other effects. According to Sharon D. Moran, an associate professor of environmental studies at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, “Plastic threatens human health in that we simply don’t know the full set of chemicals that leach out of them into food and drink, especially when heated. For some of the chemicals leached, there are known or suspected health effects, including estrogen mimicking. Think of it as an ability to disrupt the chemical signaling that takes place within the body.”

Plastic K-Cups also produce an absurd amount of waste. The #7 composite plastic in the cups is mostly non-recyclable, which means K-Cups fill our landfills and potentially harm organisms and the ecosystem. Although the health effects of aluminum aren’t as widely publicized as those of plastic, the CDC links aluminum to Alzheimer’s disease. A possible connection also exists to bone or brain diseases, especially in those with a preexisting kidney disease.

The Silver Lining

Don’t throw your Keurig away just yet. Human immune systems are capable of handling a bit of mold and bacteria, but the problem comes when a Keurig is rarely, if ever, cleaned. Maintenance and regular cleaning of your machine can wash away most of the bacteria and mold that grows inside. Keurig recommends descaling your device every three to six months using white vinegar. Detailed instructions can be found on the Keurig website.

Keurig Green Mountain also aims to make K-Cups recyclable by 2020, either by changing the type of plastic used or by switching to biodegradable material. Tiffany Gomez, a junior pre-med and biology major, is already ahead of the game. Eager to find an alternative for the wasteful K-Cups, she searched at local stores and found biodegradable, environmentally friendly K-Cup brands. Her favorite is Wide Awake Coffee Company, which she says has “strong and flavorful coffee” and uses mesh filters instead of plastic ones. Gomez also likes the weaker taste of the San Francisco Bay Gourmet Coffee brand; their K-Cups are 97% biodegradable. “We have a responsibility to do what’s best for our environment. Everyone is just adding so much waste, and I feel like it’s important to try to look for alternatives,” Gomez says. Other options for environmentally friendly K-Cups include Dean’s Beans, which uses recyclable #5 plastic, and Crazy Cups. Users can also purchase a reusable filter basket that holds regular ground coffee inside of the Keurig for about $15.

Alternative single serve coffee makers might also be considered as solutions to health and environmental concerns. For example, Breville manufactures coffee makers that can make single cups as well as a whole carafe of coffee without plastic waste. Hamilton Beach® The Scoop™ Single-Serve Coffee Maker also uses ground coffee for single serving cups.

Now that you’re in the know, let the coffee obsession continue.

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