Would you like your coffee with a cancer warning?

California coffee shops may soon have to display a sign warning people that coffee carries a potential health risk. Coffee contains some acrylamide, a possible carcinogen. What is acrylamide, why is it in coffee, and is coffee really dangerous? 

California coffee shops may soon have to display a sign warning people that coffee carries a potential health risk

California coffee shops may soon have to display a sign warning people that coffee carries a potential health risk

There’s never a dull moment for healthy eating devotees. Just as we started to get used to thinking about coffee as a health elixir, media outlets are again flooded with a sense of alarm.

The latest: California coffee shops may soon have to display a sign warning people that coffee carries a potential health risk.

Under California Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, also known as Proposition 65, businesses must give customers a "clear and reasonable warning" about the presence of agents that affect health. A lawsuit alleges that coffee companies (such as Starbucks and 7-Eleven) failed to warn customers about the presence of a substance considered a possible carcinogen in their coffee: acrylamide.

What is acrylamide and why is it in coffee?

The chemical acrylamide, which is used in industrial processes, was first detected in food in 2002. The Swedish National Food Administration and the University of Stockholm reported that acrylamide was present in many foods, including snack foods, deep fried food, bread and coffee. ­Acrylamide was not found in any raw foods, and further investigation found that acrylamide formed during high-temperature processing through a reaction known as the Maillard reaction between sugars and certain amino acids.

This finding led to lots of research centered on the chemistry of acrylamide formation. Many parameters affect it, from processing temperature, acidity and water content, to the chemical composition of the raw ingredients, which change from one cultivar to the next, and depend on a myriad of factors, from the weather during the growing season to the exact time of harvest. Needless to say, it’s very hard to assess the exact quantity of acrylamide in a person’s diet.

Acrylamide has potential toxic effects, including carcinogenic effects on experimental animals exposed to large doses of the chemical. Humans, though, absorb and metabolize acrylamide differently than rats, and are exposed to much lower doses.

When it comes to humans, a clear conclusion about acrylamide’s potential toxicity is difficult to reach. A review of 41 studies of dietary exposure to acrylamide found that due to lack of uniformity of exposure measurements and many other limitations, the risk of cancer due to acrylamide intake is unclear.

The Food and Drug Association (FDA) has not advised people at this time to stop eating products that contain acrylamide, and has not established safe and unsafe acrylamide levels in foods. Acrylamide is, however, classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Group 2A – a probable carcinogen

A little bit about IARC’s classifications:

Class 1 lists known human carcinogens. This notorious list includes cigarettes, which I’m sure you’ve guessed, and also processed meats and alcoholic beverages. It also includes some types of human papilloma virus (HPV), secondhand smoking, and sun exposure.

In the 2A class – which acrylamide is listed in – one can find red meat, drinking very hot beverages, being a shift worker, exposure to high temperature frying.

Looking at the IARC list one realizes that life, alas, is full of risk, and the IARC list only reflects the threat of cancer.

California’s Prop 65 informs restaurant goers about the risks of alcohol, mercury (in fish), acrylamide (highest amount in French fries) BPA, lead and more; meat’s not on the list. And Prop 65 warnings are only about cancer, reproductive harm and birth defects.

We didn’t even get to the risk of traffic accidents, violence and slipping on ice on the way to the restaurant.

Almost every human action or inaction carries some risk, and one needs some perspective and wisdom in order to carry on with a happy life and not be bogged down by foreboding information.

Do coffee shops warrant a warning?

Consumers do have a right to know, but when the warnings are too frequent and too broad, one just becomes numb. I, for one, do not want my car to remind me that I’m risking my life every time I need to drive – although it’s factual information. I need to get places, and I need to eat.

And coffee’s one of the better drinks out there.

“More concentrated research needs to be done in order to strike coffee with this harsh label," says registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman. “There are many benefits that coffee has unto the body, such as providing essential antioxidants and even possibly lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Damming coffee may cause people to look towards other, unhealthier morning rituals such as an increase in orange juice and sugary beverages, which we know are clearly linked to an increased risk of diabetes and obesity.”

Prop 65 requirements are much stricter than other US laws, suggests Dr. Barry Sears. “Under this law, high-end chocolate makers are currently being sued since their products exceed the levels mandated by California law.  Canned tuna containing mercury and fish oil capsules containing PCBs beyond the limits mandated by Prop 65 are also under examination.”

“There are presently many uncertainties about the health impacts of acrylamide in food, says family practitioner and integrative physician Dr. Michael Carlston. “Levels 500 times what we consume in foods can cause nerve toxicity. Cancers can be caused by low-level long-term exposures to many substances. In theory that may possibly include acrylamides.  Coffee is under fire as a source of acrylamides. It is always worthwhile to reappraise old habits in light of new information. However, our knowledge of other compounds in coffee as well as studies looking at the “bottom line” are reassuring about the relative safety and even the health benefits of coffee.”

Dr. Carlston picked up the coffee habit later in life – for health reasons – he discloses. “Coffee consumption accounts for 60% of Americans intake of polyphenols. Polyphenols are perhaps the most health protective class of chemicals in our food. Polyphenols give veggies and fruits much of their color. Although many people have heard of the benefits of one polyphenol (resveratrol) their impact is far greater. For example, research shows that controlling for other known risks, people who consume the highest levels of polyphenols lower their risk of heart disease by 50%. The findings for cancer are similar. Many studies from Scandinavia and the Greek Isles -- whose population has the highest coffee consumption in the world – show dramatically lower rates of cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, and cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Carlston adds.

A few tips for cutting acrylamide exposure from food:

  • Cut on fried food: Fried food had lots of extra calories, so acrylamide is just another reason to make French fries an infrequent treat
  • Don’t over-toast: Aim for light brown when toasting bread
  • Eat fewer crunchy processed snacks: It’s hard to say exactly how much acrylamide is in each and every one of the chips, crackers and biscuits out there, but these are among the foods that have the highest range of acrylamide, and they’re foods we should eat in moderation anyway.
  • Coffee: Its levels of acrylamide aren’t anywhere near those of French fries, but in case you’re interested in lowering your exposure, Arabica beans have less acrylamide than Robusta beans, roasted coffee of all kinds has less than instant coffee, espresso coffee has less than other brewing methods, and, counter intuitively, the lighter the bean roast the more acrylamide in the coffee (light roast more acrylamide than medium, medium more than dark).

I, personally, will continue to enjoy my coffee.

There’s only so much I chose to worry about.

Dr. Ayala