Can Coffee Really Cause Cancer? It’s Debatable

Coffee drinkers were taken aback after a judge in California recently ruled that companies such as Starbucks must warn consumers that their daily cup of joe may contain the cancer-causing chemical acrylamide, which is used during the roasting process. Yet, it’s unclear whether the levels of acrylamide are high enough in the popular drink to cause cancer in humans.

The Council for Education and Research on Toxics (CERT) has been warning others about the substance for years and first filed a lawsuit against 90 coffee retailers back in 2010, alleging they violated a California law that requires businesses to warn consumers about carcinogens in their products.

Acrylamide is found in a lot of food, not just coffee. It’s present in items that are baked, toasted, roasted and fried, including French fries, potato chips, crackers, bread, cookies, and cereal, according to the National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide forms when cooking is done for longer periods or at higher temperatures, notes the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has been contemplating releasing guidelines about the chemical’s content in food.

The FDA pointed out in 2016 that the Grocery Manufacturers Association found acrylamide was present in 40 percent of the calories consumed in the typical American diet.

Acrylamide is also used in products such as plastics, grouts, and cosmetics as well as cigarette smoke.

High doses of acrylamide have been shown to increase cancer risk in animals and likely in people as well. However, there’s no clear evidence that the chemical is carcinogenic in humans.

Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, noted that the studies were conducted on animals and included much larger quantities of the chemical than an average person would consume.

“The substance is present in many of our foods, not just coffee. There was a minor scare about it being in French fries, and foods that are cooked on higher temperatures. Demonstrating a direct cause to cancer is very difficult. You always have to put a [suspected] risk into perspective,” said Lichtenfeld, as quoted by Fox News.

According to the National Cancer Institute, some studies show the levels of acrylamide in coffee can increase cancer, while others don’t find a link at all. The problem is that it’s difficult to determine how much acrylamide people consume. In addition, rodents and people absorb and metabolize acrylamide differently, the NCI reported.

The FDA has some recommendations to decrease the amount of acrylamide in food:

  • When frying frozen fries, avoid overcooking, heavy crisping, or burning.
  • Toast bread to a light brown color and avoid eating dark brown pieces.
  • Cook potato products such as frozen French fries to a golden yellow color instead of a brown color.
  • Don’t put potatoes in the refrigerator, which can increase acrylamide during cooking. Keep them in dark, cool places, such as a closet or pantry.

The FDA also recommends people eat a healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts. The agency notes that acrylamide does not form, or forms at lower levels, in dairy, meat, and fish products. People are also advised to limit saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars.

It’s not all bad news for coffee drinkers. Research has shown that coffee may increase your life span, decrease the risk of certain cancers, and improve your workout.


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