First, they came for our bacon, and now they’re trying to come for our coffee. Cups of java in California will soon come with a warning—about their potential to cause cancer.
Yep, you read that right. Coffee vendors in the Golden State will have to warn customers about a possibly cancer-causing chemical in everyone’s favorite morning drug—err, drink.
Here’s some background: In 2010, the Council for Education and Research on Toxics filed a lawsuit in California with the goal of requiring a warning to coffee consumers about acrylamide, a byproduct of the coffee bean roasting process, Time reported. This week, after protests from coffee vendors, a judge ruled in favor of the Council, meaning retailers will be legally bound to deliver the bad news.
But how bad is it really? Because we’re really not about to give up our coffee… are we?
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Acrylamide is formed when certain foods are cooked in certain ways, the American Cancer Society (ACS) explains. Frying, baking, broiling, and roasting at high temps can all cause a reaction between sugars and an amino acid in plant products like potatoes, grains, and, yes, coffee, that creates the chemical.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) dubs acrylamide a “probable human carcinogen,” the same classification as red meat in that bombshell bacon news from a few years back. (Bacon and other processed meats, as you might recall, were deemed definitely carcinogenic.)
Problem is, we don’t really know how bad it is to consume acrylamide in food. “We know it has a risk of causing cancer based on animal studies where they were fed very large amounts of acrylamide and developed tumors,” explains J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical office at ACS. “But that’s not proof-positive it causes cancer in humans. It’s considered suggestive evidence.” To get a better idea, the ACS and other groups have urged researchers to do more studies in this area, he says, but currently, “there is no well-done human study on acrylamide with respect to consumption in food.”
It’s not the first time people have been alarmed about acrylamide in food. Just last year, burnt toast and crispy potatoes were the cancer-scare du jour—also without much evidence. “I suspect what’s happened here is the law sets up a particular set of standards, and the coffee folks were required to address those standards,” says Dr. Lichtenfeld. “But that’s the law, that’s not science.”
Here’s a simple way to think about it, according to science: Yes, acrylamide is in coffee. But coffee is not known to cause cancer. “Therefore, the risk of acrylamide in coffee is likely minimal, if there’s any at all,” Dr. Lichtenfeld says. Phew!
Still, if you’re concerned, you can always cut back, he says. “There are other ways you can get caffeine—tea for example—but by the same token, you also have to be cautious of acrylamide elsewhere in your diet, like French fries, potato chips, and processed cereals, among others. If you want to follow that path, you have a number of approaches you can put into your daily routine to reduce the exposure to acrylamide.”
We think it’s safe to say very few people are all that eager to give up their coffee. Considering the beverage also has health benefits, there are compelling reasons to stick with your java habit. Regular drinkers are thought to have a lower risk of diabetes, stroke, depression, and—believe it or not—even some cancers. Coffee fans may also live longer than people who don’t drink the stuff. (Friendly reminder: Loading yours with cream and sugar isn’t doing your health any favors, and to avoid being totally over-caffeinated, stick to 400 milligrams of caffeine or less each day, about the amount in four cups of coffee.)
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Ultimately, do what feels right—and prioritize avoiding other known carcinogens, like smoking, obesity, and too much sun. “People have to make choices that are right for them,” says Dr. Lichtenfeld, a tea drinker himself. “I wouldn’t drink coffee as a means to reduce cancer risk, and I wouldn’t avoid coffee to reduce my risk of cancer.”