It’s a ritual millions of us count on to get us through the day: we wake up, stumble into the kitchen, and pour ourselves a steaming hot mug of our favorite poop-inducer. But according to various urban legends, there’s more to your morning cup of joe than just the coffee beans and water you were expecting. Could the secret ingredient in your daily pick-me-up really be… cockroaches?
Where did the rumor come from?
According to Snopes, the idea of cockroach-coffee first went viral all the way back in 2009 when, in an interview with NPR, University of Montana biologist Douglas Emlen mentioned a throwaway anecdote about George Eickwort – a highly respected entomology professor from Cornell, and one of Emlen’s old mentors as an undergraduate.
He was "one of the greatest entomologists I ever met,” recalled Emlen. But "he was fiercely addicted to caffeine – to coffee. And we’d have to drive way off the interstate to go find good coffee […] I mean, we’d go 45 minutes off our route to go find a place that had whole bean fresh ground coffee. And I remember giving him a really hard time because we were wasting a lot of travel time trying to feed his addiction because he need[ed] a coffee every couple of hours.”
But as Emlen soon discovered, this wasn’t his supervisor just being a coffee snob.
“He finally explained to me he had to drink only […] whole bean fresh ground coffee,” he told the interviewer. “It was because of cockroaches.”
After years of teaching entomology and handing bugs on a daily basis, Eickwort had discovered that – just like up to two in five Americans – he was allergic to the near-invincible minibeasts.
That was a big problem for his caffeine addiction, since, as he apparently told Emlen, “your big bulk coffee that you buy in a tin, is all processed from these huge stock piles of coffee. These piles of coffee, they get infested with cockroaches and there’s really nothing they can do to filter that out.”
Is it true?
While the interview had not actually been about either cockroaches or coffee, this story quickly took off across the internet. It wasn’t long before “your coffee probably contains bits of cockroach” had transformed from gross-out soundbite to widely-believed factoid. But is it actually true?
As it turns out, that’s a difficult question to answer. You may already be aware that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sets maximum levels of natural contaminants that are allowed in food for human consumption – and yes, that totally includes bits of insect, along with mold, fly eggs and larva, and rodent hair and feces – and analyses carried out by the agency have previously confirmed the presence of insect infestations and damage in coffee beans.
On the other hand, “insects” is a label spanning millions of different species, only a handful of which are cockroaches. As an FDA spokesperson told Snopes via email, coffee is much more likely to face infestations by insects like the coffee berry borer beetle or coffee bean weevil than cockroaches.
On top of that, cockroaches are not considered “incidental pests” by the agency – meaning they aren’t covered by those maximum allowed levels of contaminants that we mentioned before. That means that keeping cockroaches out is actually a legal requirement for food manufacturers and producers: “Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring food products for the U.S. market, including coffee, are safe and comply with applicable federal laws and regulations including preventing pests like cockroaches from contaminating food,” the spokesperson told Snopes. “To be clear, cockroaches are not allowed in coffee.”
According to pest control company Presto-X, the coffee manufacturers are pretty good at making the grade in this respect.
“We provide integrated pest management for some of the largest coffee production facilities in the US,” a 2017 blog post from the company notes. “There are absolutely no roach problems in these facilities.”
“Where most warehouses would attract at least a few, these locations are always totally free of this bug.”
So, is my coffee definitely cockroach free?
Here’s the thing: cockroaches may not be swarming coffee storehouses en masse – but there’s probably no guarantee your morning brew is totally free from bits of roach.
That’s because, just like rats, cockroaches are kind of inescapable. “I hate to say this on record,” Emlen told NPR, “but you’d be hard pressed to find any building probably in this country that’s not infested with cockroaches at some level or another.”
“Certainly all public buildings,” he added. “It’s impossible to keep these things completely gone.”
Indeed, one 2012 study found detectable levels of cockroach allergens in the dust of more than 85 percent of kids’ bedrooms in US inner cities – for reference, that’s close to seven out of every eight children sleeping in the same room as the creepy-crawlies each night.
If that squicks you out, we have even worse news: the room where cockroach allergens are highest, and therefore cockroach populations are largest, is the kitchen. Add to that the results of one 2019 study which found a component of the smell of java to be mouthwatering to cockroaches, and it starts to make a bit more sense why you’ve seen a roach or two hanging around your coffee pot now and then.
According to Presto-X, however, the little beasties are probably after something other than a caffeine hit. “Most of the time, the reason you see roaches by your coffee is because they are attracted to things that are stored by the coffee,” the company writes.
“Creamer, sugar, and other food items that have been left out are delicious for roaches,” they explain. “Putting these ingredients away, and being sure to clean up any spills immediately will help get rid of roaches naturally.”
Surprisingly, while the smell may attract roaches, the actual taste of coffee isn’t all that pleasant to the creepy-crawlies. While the idea of coffee acting as a natural roach repellent doesn’t seem to have much scientific basis, it is true that caffeine has been used as a deterrent for cockroaches in experiments.
In other words: while they may well turn up now and then in your coffee beans or pot, your average cockroach probably isn’t actively seeking out the local Starbucks to infiltrate their stockpiles.
Your coffee is probably safe… from cockroaches.
While there’s no guarantee your morning joe is totally cockroach-free, the idea that you’re downing a bunch of roach legs and antennae along with your coffee is something you probably shouldn't spend too much time worrying about.
Especially not when you consider what else might be in your cup.
“I was head roaster at a small coffee company for 4 years roasting hundreds of pounds of coffee every week and never once saw a cockroach,” noted one Redditor in response to a question about roaches in coffee.
“Small animal bones? A few. Corn? Yup. Small rocks or concrete bits? Sometimes,” they added. “Bugs? Never.”
“We found a bullet casing in our pre-roasted beans once,” replied another user, while someone else recounted that they had “a lizard where I work. Poor guy.”
Suddenly, traces of ground-up roaches don’t seem like such a worrying prospect, does it?
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.