Last week, a judge ruled that coffee shops in California must now warn customers of a potentially cancer-causing chemical found in coffee. Such news sparked renewed interest in a centuries-old debate: is coffee good or bad for us? If the idea of giving up coffee is giving you jitters, don’t worry! Here’s what you need to know:
When coffee beans are roasted, a chemical called acrylamide is produced. Acrylamide can also be found in French fries, potato chips, crackers, cookies, cereal, and other high-carbohydrate foods that are roasted, baked, toasted, or fried at high temperatures (above 250 °F). Acrylamide’s label as a “probable” or “likely” carcinogen is based on animal studies. In these studies, rodents that were fed acrylamide in their drinking water had a higher risk of developing several types of cancer.
Does this mean you should stop drinking coffee? Not necessarily. Rodents absorb and metabolize acrylamide differently than humans. Also, the doses of acrylamide that were given to rodents in the aforementioned studies were 1,000-10,000 times higher than what we’re exposed to in foods. Therefore, it’s not clear if these results apply to humans.
What Human Studies Say
According to the American Cancer Society, recent studies have not established a clear link between eating acrylamide-containing foods and developing a certain type of cancer. These studies did have their limitations though. For example, researchers often used food frequency questionnaires to determine how often an individual ate acrylamide-containing foods. These questionnaires don’t provide a comprehensive list of foods and rely on one’s memory to complete.
In one 2017 study, the World Health Organization (WHO) sought to determine whether coffee, not acrylamide, causes cancer directly. Results indicated that coffee was unlikely to cause breast, prostate or pancreatic cancer. On the contrary, coffee was linked to a decreased risk of liver and uterine cancers. It should be noted that coffee’s effect on other types of cancer was not determined.
While these studies provide somewhat reassuring results, additional research is needed to determine if acrylamide does increase the risk of cancer development.
What Smart Eater Dietitians Say
If you are concerned about your exposure to acrylamide, we recommend adopting a healthy eating plan that is consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. A healthy meal plan can also include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs, and nuts, and be low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars.
With regards to coffee, drinking one cup per day isn’t likely to expose you to high quantities of acrylamide. If you drink several cups of coffee per day, consider lowering your current intake.