Coffee is one of the world’s most traded goods and coffee beans come from around the world. Chances are your beans are not locally grown and have traveled a long way to your cup. Because of the international nature of this special commodity, it is difficult to control the growing environment of your chosen coffee beans.

Some beans are grown in a very natural and healthy way while some are not. As the world begins to pay more attention to the environmental and health impact of the coffee trade, many non-governmental organizations have made it their mission to inform the world of these problems. Additionally, each wants their label to shine brightest in the eye of coffee consumers so they can continue to make an impact.

As a result, navigating the coffee sections of health food stores today can be a dizzying endeavor. The aisle is crowded with different labels each trying to sing praise for its particular cause: “Save the Rainforest”, “Organic”, “Free Trade”.

Some labels focus on protecting the environment and labor abuses in the coffee trade. For this article, we will focus on labels that relate to health, although there is some overlap, as you will see below.

USDA Organic and 100% Organic

Organic Coffee label

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issues its own label for organic coffee sold and bought in the US. Under the seal “USDA Organic“, the coffee must be at least 95% from organic sources. That is why other coffees will advertise 100% Organic to close that 5% gap.

Organic coffee is grown in countries all over the world and held to standards set by the USDA. These standards require farmers to farm without using artificial fertilizers and chemicals on their crops. On the ground verification is administered by organizations certified by the USDA.

The USDA and other organic labels for coffee are great starting points for healthier beans. Organic will cut out chemicals during the production process and ensure the beans have been grown in healthier environments. Criticisms of this labeling system say it is too general and does not go far enough on holding farmers accountable.

Rain Forest Alliance Certified

rainforest alliance coffee

In addition to ensuring the fair trade principles, this well recognized organization and labeling system also puts a great deal of emphasis on the growing conditions of coffee beans.

This means that Rainforest Alliance coffee beans use no unhealthy pesticides or other unnatural additives to the coffees that they certify. The coffee beans under this label are grown in a much better environment and harvested by fairly compensated workers. This translates to happier, healthier beans that make for a great cup of coffee.

Smithsonian Bird Friendly

bird friendly coffee

This certification system is very strict and focuses on the destruction of bird habitats in areas that coffee beans are grown. A positive result of forest protection is coffee grown the old fashioned way: natural pollination and under the shade of taller tree canopies. This is not only good for birds and their habitats, but also results in a healthier bean rich in flavor.

Farmers under the Smithsonian Bird Friendly label face random inspection and are held to strict guidelines. They must eliminate the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Be assured that these coffee beans are among the healthiest in the world. Additionally many coffee experts think that coffee grown this way is tastier too!

Pay More for Your Health, It’s Worth It

The movement towards healthier coffee beans sourced under these labels is driven by consumer demand in developed markets that drink the most coffee. Since coffee beans tend to be grown in poorer regions of the world, it is up to the coffee drinkers to demand that harmful chemicals are not used during the growing process. That might mean paying a bit more per package of coffee but the long term benefits on the environment and our bodies is definitely worth it.