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The power of the coffee leaf

From the November 2012 issue.

A new study has revealed the chemical properties of coffee leaves that could unlock the potential for breeding and as a valuable beverage.

Dr. Claudine Campa, from the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in France, has a bit of a leaf obsession.

Campa specialises in looking at the phenolic composition of leaves – the natural compounds that build up in plants to help protect the plant from natural elements. Fortunately for the coffee industry, Campa recently turned her near obsession to this caffeinated plant.

“Much of the focus of studies on coffee has been directed on its uses as a beverage. The research often starts with the cup in mind: the seeds, that is the coffee beans. Few people have thought about the leaves,” says Campa. “But when you think about it, everything is linked to the nutrition of a plant. From the roots, to the photosynthesis carried out by the leaves, it all comes together to define the health of the fruit and the beans inside.”

The results of Campa’s coffee-leaf focus have resulted in a scientific paper she first-authors “A survey of mangiferin and hydroxycinnamic acid ester accumulation in coffee (Coffea) leaves: biological implications and uses” published in the Annals of Botany in April this year. The results could have profound implications for the coffee industry, offering new possibilities for breeding more resistant coffee varieties. Additionally, the potential health benefits discovered in the study open up new possibilities for using coffee leaves in pharmaceuticals and natural medicines.

As well as the commercial coffee species, Coffea arabica (Arabica) and C. canephora (Robusta), Campa opted to look at less studied wild species in Africa and Madagascar. This follows on from the work of one her co-authors Dr. Aaron Davis. Davis, of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (United Kingdom) has focused much of his recent work on discovering and studying wild coffee species, which includes estimating the medium- to long-term potential for coffee production.

While several biochemical studies have focused on wild species, Campa says these have generally focused on green (unroasted) and roasted beans, with little attention paid to the leaves.

Other than Arabica and Robusta, only one wild species has been studied for its leaf phenolic content. Furthermore, Campa says that chemical analysis of wild species from Madagascar has been limited. The last published study was by Jean Jacques Rakotomalala in 1992. Rakotomalala continues to work in Madagascar, at the coffee research station in Kianjavato, where they hold a large living collection of wild coffee plants.

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