New coffee claims health benefits of broccoli — but not the taste

Coffee and broccoli are not two flavors one might imagine together, but a Baltimore health supplement company and a Lutherville coffee roaster are combining them in a new coffee that claims to offer broccoli's health benefits without its distinct taste.

Brassica coffee, a collaboration between Brassica Protection Products and Baltimore Coffee and Tea Co., is armed with a little-known nutritional ingredient extracted from broccoli seeds that researchers at the Johns Hopkins University found has antioxidant properties when they were studying ways to prevent cancer years ago.

Baltimore Coffee is making the coffee in single-serve cups and Brassica, which was founded by the Hopkins researchers in 1997 to sell supplements with the antioxidant to consumers, will sell the coffee under its brand, starting later this week.

"This is really a new category in coffee," said Stanley J. Constantine, president of the family-owned Baltimore Coffee, which sells private-label coffee to colleges, restaurants, grocery stores and museums and at four retail stores, including one at its West Aylesbury Road manufacturing plant. "My suspicion is it will sell like wildfire."

Constantine has reason to believe Brassica coffee — which he said has no broccoli flavor — will win consumers over. His company has had a partnership with Brassica for the past decade, when it began making Brassica-branded tea.

The Brassica coffee and teas contain glucoraphanin, trademarked as "truebroc" and patented and licensed by Johns Hopkins.

Though neither company makes any claims about the products related to cancer, Constantine said he believes in the health benefits of glucoraphanin.

Once ingested, it's converted into the antioxidant sulforaphane, which "boosts your body's natural ability to defend itself against pollutants and toxins for up to 72 hours," according to the coffee packaging.

It's not such a far leap from the already well-known health benefits of broccoli, Constantine said.

While said he realized all sorts of so-called "cure-alls" are out there, "this has Hopkins' name and their patent. ... I encourage anyone who is interested to look at the research."

Coffee and tea were not part of the equation in the early days of broccoli research at Johns Hopkins. The Laboratory for Molecular Pharmacology, led by Paul Talalay, a professor of pharmacology and molecular science, discovered sulforaphane in broccoli in 1992. Researcher Jed W. Fahey, who joined in 1993, discovered that broccoli sprouts were rich in glucoraphanin, the dietary precursor to sulforaphane.

"In the mid-'90s, we were looking solely at cancer prevention, and animal models and the epidemiology was indicating it was a potent preventer of cancers getting started," said Fahey, an assistant professor of medicine and a professor of pharmacology and molecular science in Hopkins' School of Medicine and director of the Cullman Chemoprotection Center, which he started with Talalay.

The researchers found that people in areas where more broccoli is consumed were less likely to get a variety of cancers.

Fahey and Talalay founded Brassica in 1997, to promote and develop fresh foods with health benefits using university-owned patents on the products. They have since left the company to remain at Hopkins, where Talalay, now 93, has spent more than 50 years.

Their research since has shown that that the broccoli seed antioxidant also may be effective in preventing other diseases, reducing the effects of severe air pollution and reversing behavioral symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, Fahey said. Research is continuing in areas such as breast cancer prevention, he said.

While it may take time to know how effective the broccoli sprouts may be with some diseases, "published results are highly suggestive that looking for an effect in stomach cancer and liver cancer are very reasonable," Fahey said.

About 12 years ago, before he left Brassica, Fahey contacted Constantine to find out whether the broccoli extract might work in tea. Constantine created the Brassica teas, using specialized tea bag-making equipment tin the Lutherville facility.

He had long hoped to add the compound, a powder, to coffee as well, but wasn't able to find a way for it to be distributed evenly. But after a Keurig patent expired and his company was able to start producing its own "single serve" cups for Keurig K-Cup brewers, he experimented with that format.

It worked, and Brassica coffee will launch by Friday in Baltimore Coffee's four stores, including locations in Lutherville, Annapolis, Odenton and Frederick, on Amazon.com and through Brassica's website.

In its 24 years, Baltimore Coffee has developed a healthy business, importing, roasting and distributing coffee and tea. It employs 105 workers and sells to wholesale and retail customers all over the country, roasting 30,000 pounds of coffee and 5,000 pounds of tea each week. The business offers 125 varieties of coffee and 135 varieties of tea.

For many people, "coffee is not discretionary," said Constantine, adding he believes consumer will be willing to pay $10.50 for a box of 12 cups for the health benefits.

Consumers spent $7 billion online in vitamins and supplements last year, a more than 12 percent annual increase, part of a pattern of consistent growth over five years, according to market research from IBISWorld.

"Recessionary drops in employment levels and the resulting decrease in access to health insurance led consumers to purchase vitamins and supplements as alternatives to expensive prescription drugs," the report said. "Health-conscious trends have risen in line with the aging and baby-boomer populations, further fueling demand for industry products."

Strong growth is expected for the next five years, IBISWorld said.

Brassica, now headed by Talalay's son, Tony Talalay, has shifted from growing broccoli sprouts and selling them to grocery stores to growing seeds and extracting glucoraphanin to sell to food and supplement companies, said Sarah Sullivan, the company's vice president of sales and marketing.

"You can eat a lot of broccoli and never know how much glucoraphanin you're getting," she said. The coffee addition "is sort of like getting the health benefits of broccoli in your coffee. It's a nice easy way to get a little bit more nutrition from something they already do."

Constantine gave some samples earlier this month to Gov. Larry Hogan, a cancer survivor, when the Maryland governor toured the plant. He'd sent Hogan tea samples previously but later found out the governor is not a tea drinker.

"This is going to reach... people that don't like tea, but want the protection," he said.

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