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Americans consume about 12 million pounds of coffee each year. From buying a latte at the local coffee shop to grinding beans at home to brew a cup of black coffee, it’s important for coffee beans to stay fresh until they reach the consumer.

Coffee has a major enemy when it comes to freshness: oxygen. The rich taste of coffee is thanks to the roasted beans’ aromatic oils, which also create the intense scent of the beverage. But just like other oils, the oils in coffee can oxidize when they are exposed to oxygen. That can cause the oil to lose its flavor, or worse, turn rancid.

On top of that, any water vapor trapped with the beans can turn them into a soggy, bacteria-infested mess. Without proper storage, coffee beans can become contaminated with molds and bacteria––after all, coffee beans grow on plants, just like fruits and seeds. And like other natural products, oxygen and water vapor eventually cause coffee to spoil.

But there’s good news for coffee lovers everywhere. The food and beverage industry uses a special tool to keep coffee fresh and preserve its signature aroma. And the secret is nitrogen.

In the past, manufacturers and coffee sellers were forced to package coffee beans surrounded by regular air, which contains oxygen and water vapor. But today, they use a process known as inertion to fill each package with nitrogen before it is sealed. Nitrogen pushes out the oxygen and water vapor in the package, which extends coffee’s shelf life and guarantees that it won’t turn rancid or start to mold.

A very similar process also protects car tires from damage caused by oxygen and water vapor. Rather than turning rancid or molding, car tires can decay because of oxidation, which attacks the strength of the rubber and any metal parts of the tire. And water vapor can likewise cause the rubber in a car tire to lose its strength.

Inerting car tires with nitrogen prevents harm from oxygen and water vapor. Just like using nitrogen in coffee packaging, inertion with nitrogen keeps tires “fresh” longer.

Post Author: Genevieve Carlton Ph.D.

Ph.D. - Research Historian from Northwestern University. A writer and researcher she has published pieces for Ranker, Stacker and Atlas Obscura. She has published a nonfiction history book with the University of Chicago Press and a number of scholarly articles with top journals.

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