K-Cups: Are They Really Safe?

Hey everyone,

More and more people are getting Keurig machines for the convenience of making one cup at a time at a push of a button.  However, do we really know how safe these machines are?

There are numerous Keurig fans that think this machine is easy and makes a fresh cup of coffee every time.  It may be easy to operate, however, it is far from fresh.  Fresh coffee is ground right before brewing.  Not ground and then nitrogen-flushed in plastic containers.

Additionally, when was the coffee roasted?  Did it have a shelf life prior to being ground?  If so, then how long was it sitting there before being used?  And then there is the question of how long the coffee has been packed in the K-cups?

My intent is not to ruffle anyone’s feathers in this blog post, but to simply share facts that I have found reading different articles.

When talking about K-Cups, the biggest debate is over the environmental impact.  I will touch on that later, but for now my biggest concern is the health risks that may come from using K-Cups.

Plastics are everywhere and some have been designated better for use in food packaging.  They have been documented and only small amounts of plastic chemicals leach into your food or beverages during common use.  However, when plastics are exposed to hot water or foods, acidic food ingredients, UV light, mechanical wear and tear, or any combination of these factors, the amount of leaching can increase by a thousand-fold or more per use.

Keurig’s website addresses the bisphenol A (BPA) concern with the following statement:

“K-Cup® and Vue® packs do not contain BPA and are constructed using FDA-approved food safe materials. We also use FDA-approved food safe materials in our K-Cup® and Vue® brewing systems, and neither system contains BPA within its water paths (as of January 1, 2010 for our K-Cup® system).”

What Keurig is not addressing are the effects of any plastic liner used under extensive heat, and which products they are using in replacement of a BPA plastic.

According to a study by “The Environmental Health Perspectives”, even BPA free products are not as safe as you might expect.  This study looked at over 455 common plastic products and they found that most plastic products, even those marked as BPA-free, leach chemicals that act like the sex hormone estrogen.

About 70% of the plastic items tested positive for estrogenic activity (EA), but the number increased to 95% when they were subjected to “real world” conditions such as microwaving and dishwashing, according to the study.  Such EA exposure has been shown to alter the structure of human cells, posing potential risks to infants and children.

“Although BPA is the most notorious chemical with estrogenic activity used in plastics, it is not the only one, nor does it have the highest biological effect,” the study co-author George D. Bittner, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas, Austin, told Chemical & Engineering News.

“Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled, independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source, leached chemicals having reliably-detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA-free,” the study concludes.  “In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than BPA-containing products.”

One of the most well known chemicals, BPA, has become controversial.  The National Toxicology Program, a division of the National Institutes of Health, says it has “some concerns” about its potential effects on the brain development of fetuses, infants and children but did not say the chemical’s unsafe.

One woman points out that the combination of hot water temperatures and acidic ground coffee amplify the leaching effects to new heights and I would agree with her.  She goes on to say, “In studies, common plastic chemicals have been shown to interfere with animal metabolism, cause reproductive cancers and sterility, increase obesity, and other disturbing effects.”

Another study found that Americans have twice the amount of BPA in their bodies than Canadians, but it couldn’t figure out exactly why.

I know the studies are not directly about K-Cups, but to me that is enough information to get me scared about ever using the plastic pods.

Technically speaking, the plastic in the cups in #7, meaning it’s a mix of plastics.  This is what makes it a problem for recycling.

The Wall Street Journal reported that 9 billion K-Cups were sold in 2010.   Keurig said it does not make that information public, but they did say that sales of K-Cups doubled in 2011 from the numbers in 2010.  I wonder how many K-Cups have been sold in the last two years.

Cindy Luppi of Clean Water Action expressed, “Our concern is that they are not recyclable.  That means they end up in the landfills and incinerators and impact our health.  The emissions end up in the air we breathe, and the water we drink.”

“It’s hard to recycle because of the multiple materials,” explained Luppi.  First, there’s the plastic cup.  Then there is the aluminum foil top, which keeps the coffee “fresh”.  Inside there is a separate filter too.

Cost is another factor that people using the Keurig K-Cups do not think about.  According to a report from the New York Times java expert Oliver Strand, the coffee in the K-Cups comes out to be $51 per pound! Wow, that is a lot more than most of our organic and Fair-Trade coffees cost per pound.  Time magazine points out that prices are a little lower if you buy the K-Cups in bulk.  However, they are still much more expensive per pound than artisan roasting companies like us.

The question remains whether the convenience of the Keurig is worth the overall environmental impact and health risks.

Mike Dupee, vice president of sustainability for Green Mountain, even stated, “The trade-off that we need to consider is, for shaving a few seconds off the amount of time it takes me to make my coffee in the morning, what is it costing in terms of what’s going to the landfill, what kinds of non-renewable source materials like fossil fuel-derived plastics are being used, and what other environmental costs are associated with that.”

People love the convenience of the Keurig.  How quickly it brews, how there is no cleanup afterwards, and the endless variety of coffee blends and flavors available to brew.  However, no one should ingest coffee from flavored coffee beans.  

If you are looking for a machine like the Keurig that brews one cup at a time and has no cleanup, then I suggest looking at the Jura Capresso coffee makers.  They do everything that the Keurig does, but without the K-Cups.  You fill the machine with your favorite coffee beans and push one button, and it grinds the beans and brews a true FRESH cup of coffee.  There are also models that you can hook up to your milk container and make lattes and cappuccinos.

I know some of you are thinking of the Keurig reusable cup that can be used with ground coffee, which would eliminate using K-Cups.  However, the beans need to be ground in a separate grinder (to make the freshest cup), the reusable cup needs to be filled and then cleaned after using.  This does not sound as convenient as the Jura Capresso!

Jura Capresso coffee makers are a little more expensive upfront, however, overtime they end up being more cost effective than the Keurig.  Jura Capresso machines are environmentally friendly and there is no heating of plastic.  Therefore, landfills will not fill up anymore from the use of K-Cups and your health is not put at risk because no plastic cartridges are heated.   It is a win win with the Jura Capresso.

I hope you take this blog post into consideration the next time you think about brewing with the Keurig.

Thanks for reading!


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