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Brazilian scientists close to a low-caf coffee bean?

Researchers in Brazil say they've discovered a coffee bean that's nearly caffeine free.

But there's a catch.

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"We haven't tasted it yet," said Paulo Mazzafera, head of the team at the State University of Campinas that made the discovery.

The scientists found that a few of the 300 trees they grew with seeds from Ethiopia lacked caffeine synthase, the enzyme that creates caffeine.

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Unfortunately, the low-caf beans grew on trees that aren't productive enough for commercial growers. So they will have to be tested and crossbred with other arabica varieties to come up with a product that's palatable and pest-resistant.

The tests could take up to 15 years. Still, researchers are optimistic that their discovery is the basis for a bean with up to 80 percent less caffeine than most regular coffees. They published their findings last week in the journal Nature.

But some experts say it will be difficult to keep caffeine out of the coffee beans produced through cross-breeding.

"The question is, will these beans be clobbered by pests, and will the coffee taste funny?" said John Stiles, science officer for a Hawaii company that has been working on a decaffeinated cup of joe by knocking out the gene responsible for caffeine.

May have something

Other experts say the Brazilians might be on the right track.

"To me this is a good approach," said Fernando Vega, a java fanatic and an entomologist with the U.S. Agricultural Research Service who studies coffee pests.

Coffee generates an estimated $70 billion in worldwide annual sales, about 10 percent of it from decaffeinated varieties.

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Mazzafera said his work is aimed increasing the market for decaf by attracting drinkers who are turned off by current chemical and water-based decaffeination methods that can alter the coffee's taste.

"People who can't tolerate caffeine and are turned off by decaf - they are not drinking anything," he said.

Japanese researchers announced in January that they, too, had created decaffeinated coffee plants and are working on a viable product.

A natural drug

Caffeine, one of the most widely consumed and studied drugs in the world, occurs naturally in 60 different plants. It increases alertness, but also can elevate heart rates and blood pressure levels.

Americans consume about 200 milligrams of caffeine each day, mostly in coffee. Consumtion of 250 milligrams a day is considered moderate and is generally not a health risk, according to the National Institutes of Health.

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Unfortunately, it's hard to tell how much you're getting. Research shows that caffeine levels vary widely from coffee to coffee - and sometimes from cup to cup of the same brand.

For example, scientists at the University of Florida College of Medicine bought 16-ounce cups of Starbucks' Latin American Breakfast Blend on six consecutive days. The caffeine levels ranged from 259 milligrams to 564 milligrams.

Starbucks spokesman Matthew Mors said variables in the brewing process, such as the type of bean, the grind, and the roasting method, can change caffeine levels from cup to cup. On the average, he said, a 16-ounce regular at Starbucks contains 195 milligrams.

"People tend to forget that coffee's an agricultural product so there are variables like weather, soils and growing patterns that can affect the end product," he added.


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