Today, you no longer have to make the decision to just buy coffee. Popular coffee brands, including Starbucks, now advertise a wide variety of specialty labels, such as organic, Fair Trade, and even Rainforest Alliance certified coffee. But what does it all mean?

Do these labels help or hurt the coffee drinker?

Will a label on your coffee help you to make a better choice, or do most customers experience “label anxiety” when trying to buy the right coffee?

To begin, let’s clarify some of the most popular labels that you may see on your coffee today:

  • Fair Trade Coffee:

    Fair Trade doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best coffee flavor, but it will guarantee that coffee farmers are given fair wages for the coffee that they grow. The majority of Fair Trade certified coffee in the world is produced in Latin America. A Fair Trade certification guarantees that the coffee will be grown by a small farmer that pursues ecological goals to conserve natural resources and limits the amount of chemicals that they use. So far, so good…

  • Direct Trade Coffee:

    Starbucks dramatically changed the US coffee culture in the mid-1990s by creating an alternative option to purchase coffee through direct trade. This means that independent roasters and companies like Starbucks seek out coffee farmers to develop direct trade relationships with them. This also means that companies can hand pick coffee farmers to purchase even higher-quality beans with better flavor profiles at a better price for their customers.

  • Rainforest Alliance Coffee:

    This label indicates that the coffee is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, dedicated to transforming the use of land and supporting ecosystems and wildlife throughout the world. The Rainforest Alliance certifies coffee farms that meet their strict standards, but coffee sellers can only put the label on their bag if at least 30% of the beans are Rainforest Alliance certified.

  • Organic Coffee:

    In order for coffee to be sold as certified organic, it must meet US standards for organic production set in place by the USDA. The coffee must have been grown on land without synthetic pesticides for at least three years, and the coffee farmer must also use sustainable crop rotation to prevent a depletion of nutrients in the soil.

Now that you have the basics of the coffee label jargon down, it’s time to make a decision as a consumer. Before you purchase your next bag of coffee, do your research. Just because a company places a label on their bag of coffee doesn’t mean that it is necessarily the best choice or the wisest investment.

For example, Starbucks brags that they are the largest Fair Trade coffee seller in the world, but only roughly 1 to 2% of their coffee sales turnover is actually Fair Trade. This doesn’t mean that all coffee labels are bad or misleading, but you must dig a little deeper to find out the truth behind your cup of Joe…

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