What are you REALLY drinking?

You’ve been drinking your coffee for a while now, and you know what you like. You’ve gone through the Starbucks line-up, you’ve spent some time toying with Seattle’s Best, maybe even some Nabob, or Dunkin Donuts if you’re in a hurry. You’ve got an old tin of Maxwell House in the back of the pantry, just in case of emergencies, and when you hit the supermarket, you like to go for that specialty mix of roasted beans with no name.

Okay, so you’re a coffee maven. But do you know what connects Maxwell House, Brim, Sanka, General Foods International Coffees, Maxim, Chase & Sanborn, and mail order coffee company Gavalia? That’s right, they’re all the same company. Cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris (who actually changed their name recently to Altria because the Philip Morris name had been so sullied by anti-tobacco lawsuits). This Lausanne Switzerland-based food product giant regularly snaps up smaller companies whenever it thinks it can dominate a market by doing so, and over the years they’ve grabbed or started a whole range of famous coffee brands.

They’re not alone. Nestle, the world’s largest food conglomerate, sells Nescafe, MJB, Hills Brothers, and Tasters Choice. Proctor and Gamble owns Millstone, Folgers, and High Point coffee.

But hey, you drink coffee bought in a cafe, so you don’t have to worry about whether what you’re drinking is owned by a huge behemoth corporation, right? Okay then, so which is better.
Seattle’s Best or Starbucks? Well, We’ve got news for you – they’re both the same company too.

Connoisseurs of coffee like to know what they’re drinking, where it came from, and many of us like to know that the people who grew the beans are being paid a fair amount for them. But when your coffee comes under so many labels, many of which are no different from one another, how are we supposed to know one from another?

Sure, we all know Maxwell House is swill low grade robusta grown by poverty stricken farmers who can barely feed their children and we might choose to steer clear of MH as a result, but Gavalia has a decent reputation, so if we “choose” to get our coffee from them instead, we’re really only changing labels who knows if we’re even getting the exact same beans?

The secret is to do a little research, and go beyond simply looking at packaging on a supermarket shelf. Sure, Starbucks coffee may come in a Seattle’s Best cup, or a 7/11 cup, or even a cup at your local college student-run coffee lounge, but you can usually tell.

The best tip, if you really want to feel good about the coffee you’re drinking, is to buy fair trade coffee whenever possible. Starbucks sells it, most supermarkets sell it (if you look hard enough), and if they don’t, ask them why they don’t. Fair trade has been grown using best possible conditions, by farmers who are paid above market rates for their beans, which means they can send their kids to school and not the slavers.

It’s not hard to make difference. Remember, the only way to move a mountain is one pebble at a time.


  1. It is good to note also that with these giant corporations, selling fair trade coffee is simply a means of catering to a niche market. It does nothing really to assist the movement or the producers really. Take someone like starbucks for example, who barely pushes the 1% mark as far as their total sales of FT coffee compared to their other coffees.

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