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Is coffee a cancer risk? You may have read in the news recently that a judge in California will require coffee shops to label the coffee they serve as a cancer risk. In addition, stores that sell coffee in California, like grocery stores, must display a cancer warning next to the coffee display. The reason? During the roasting process, coffee produces chemicals called acrylamides. Studies in animals link acrylamides with a higher risk of cancer.
If you’re a coffee lover, you probably don’t want your go-to beverage mentioned in the same sentence as cancer. Right? So, you might be tempted to cut back on or eliminate coffee from your daily routine. Well, Dr. A. won’t be doing that and I’ll explain why and, hopefully, reassure you that coffee is likely not going to raise your risk of cancer.
What is Acrylamide?
Acrylamide is a chemical used in some industries, for example, the plastics and paper industry. In addition, acrylamide is used to treat the water we drink. You also find it in products that you’re exposed to every day, like glues, packaging, and caulking materials and in cigarette smoke. In fact, cigarette smoke is one of the biggest sources of human exposure to acrylamides. People who smoke have up to five times the level of acrylamides in their bloodstream relative to nonsmokers.
Acrylamide also forms when you cook certain foods to high temperatures. These are predominantly foods that contain an amino acid called asparagine and starches, either synthetic or natural. It also forms when you roast coffee at high temperatures.
Food processing also boosts the level of acrylamides in food as the foods are heated to high temperatures. You find a higher level in products like potato chips, cereals, and French fries since potatoes contain lots of asparagine and natural sugars. Frying a potato significantly increases acrylamides and the browner or crispier a chip or French fry is and the longer it’s cooked, the higher the levels of acrylamides it likely has. Even baking a potato produces this chemical.
Some healthy foods are also a source of acrylamides, including roasted nuts and black olives. Yes, you find it in junk food, but also foods we eat for their apparent health benefits, like nuts. Raw nuts don’t contain significant quantities of acrylamides, as they aren’t exposed to high temperatures. Roasted almonds tend to have higher levels than other nuts.
Is Coffee a Cancer Risk: Cancer, Acrylamides and Coffee
Do acrylamides cause cancer? If you look at rodent studies, you would assume that acrylamides are a cancer risk, as rodents exposed to these chemicals develop cancers at a higher rate. Acrylamides also seem to cause DNA damage, which is a risk factor for cancer.
However, human studies have not shown a consistent link between acrylamide exposure and cancer. As the National Cancer Institute points out, there are differences in the way rodents absorb and metabolize acrylamides, so the results of rodent studies aren’t necessarily applicable to humans.
In the rodent studies, the animals get acrylamide in their drinking water at levels of more than 1,000 times what humans would likely be exposed to. But, in humans, water is not the greatest source of exposure as the acrylamide content of water is monitored and regulated. You also have to question whether getting acrylamide through drinking water, rather than from food sources or coffee, has the same impact on the body.
Exposure to Acrylamides May Cause Neurological Issues
Industrial exposure to acrylamides is linked with neurological problems as it can alter brain chemicals and damage nerves. However, most of us don’t work in an industry that exposes us to acrylamides. Interestingly, workers who are exposed to acrylamides through industry don’t seem to have a higher risk of cancer, based on current studies. Not to say there isn’t a link, it’s just not supported by current research.
How Much Acrylamide is in Coffee?
Is coffee a cancer risk? Coffee can contain substantial amounts of acrylamides, depending on the brand and how it was roasted. Acrylamides form early in the roasting process and then dwindle, so lighter roast coffee actually has more than a darker roast does. In general, instant coffee has more than freshly roasted coffee. You may have seen herbal coffee substitutes out there and think sipping one of these is a good way to avoid acrylamides. Don’t do it. Herbal coffees have the highest acrylamide content of all. All in all, the quantity of acrylamides in a cup of coffee can vary greatly.
Is Coffee a Cancer Risk?
We know that coffee contains acrylamides due to the roasting it undergoes, yet many other foods have as much or more acrylamide as coffee! Here’s a link to a list of foods the FDA published with their acrylamide content:
As you can see, coffee doesn’t even top the list of acrylamide-rich foods. Why aren’t these other foods required to carry warnings? Yes, coffee contains modest quantities of acrylamides but it’s near the middle of the chart. If you break down coffee into sub-categories, instant coffee typically contains the most. Freshly roasted coffee contains less.
In fact, based on analyses, foods that contain the highest levels of acrylamides, other than coffee, are:
- French fries and potato chips, including baked veggie chips
- Noodle and soup mixes
- Snack foods, including cookies and crackers
- Roasted cocoa beans and chocolate
Cumulatively, people are getting more acrylamides from these foods than from drinking a few cups of coffee daily. Plus, these foods, with the exception of cocoa beans, don’t have the health benefits that coffee does. It seems a bit misguided, doesn’t it?
Looking at Coffee as a Whole: Coffee and Acrylamides
Coffee is a beverage that contains thousands of chemicals, some of which are toxic, and others that seem to have health benefits. It makes no sense to isolate out a single chemical from coffee and say that coffee causes cancer-based exclusively on that chemical. The thousands of chemicals in coffee interact in complex ways to influence bodily functions. Acrylamide is only one chemical in a symphony of reactions. Did you know some of the chemicals in healthy foods like vegetables are toxic? Yet, overwhelming evidence suggests that vegetables are health promoting.
Because coffee contains so many chemicals, we have to look at its impact as a whole beverage rather than judging it based on its acrylamide content. Studies actually link coffee drinking with a lower risk of some forms of cancer, especially cancer of the liver and uterus. So, coffee, as a whole, is not linked with an increased cancer risk, and that should be reassuring for anyone who loves their cup of Joe.
Your Body Can Eliminate Acrylamides
Cells have the capacity to “detoxify” acrylamides and break them down into a form that’s not harmful. However, there is a point beyond which cells are overwhelmed by acrylamide and can’t convert all of it to a non-toxic form. You can boost your body’s natural ability to break down acrylamides to a form by eating foods that support your internal antioxidant/detox system. These include sulfur-rich foods, like garlic and onions, and cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale. So, it’s not a bad idea to balance out coffee and other foods that contain acrylamide with a little broccoli!
Should You Stop Drinking Coffee?
We don’t plan on cutting back on coffee based on the news. However, we only sip a few cups a day. If you drink 5 or 6 cups a day and, also, eat chips, toasted cereals, and other foods that contain acrylamide, you might push your body’s limits to break it down. So, moderation is key. Ultimately, it would be better to eliminate chip, fries, and other junk food that contains acrylamides than jettisoning coffee, a beverage that has potential health benefits.
Coffee and acrylamides – don’t be too quick to give up coffee, at least not based on a warning label. It only looks at one chemical in coffee, a beverage that’s quite complex with more thousands of other chemicals, some healthful and some potentially harmful. What counts most is what studies show about the health effects of coffee as a whole – and it’s predominantly favorable.
National Cancer Institute. “Acrylamide and Cancer Risk”
Nutr Neurosci. 2014 Feb;17(2):49-57.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. “Survey Data on Acrylamide in Food: Individual Food Products”
Centre for Food Safety. “Naturally Occurring Toxins in Vegetables and Fruits”