Coffee and the ‘cancer-causing’ chemical
Q: As I coffee lover, I have been happy to read about its health benefits. However, I am a bit disturbed by the suggestion that one of its ingredients causes cancer. What’s your opinion?
A: Indeed, the news on coffee is mostly good. This includes the results of a recent study that found coffee drinkers live longer, a conclusion that held up even for heavy coffee consumption (eight or more cups of coffee each day), and regardless of whether the coffee was caffeinated or not.
And longevity was linked to coffee consumption regardless of what type of caffeine metabolism genes you carry. The authors concluded that the health benefits of coffee go beyond caffeine.
I suspect your question is related to an effort in California to require a notification to coffee consumers of a possible link to cancer.
Here’s the reason: in 1986, California passed Proposition 65, which requires businesses to provide a warning label when exposing any consumer to any item on a long list of potentially harmful chemicals. Acrylamide is on that list, and coffee contains acrylamide — a chemical produced during the roasting process.
Nothing has changed in our understanding regarding the potential side effects of coffee, or its benefits.
Many studies have explored whether there is a potential link between drinking coffee and cancer. None has convincingly linked acrylamide in coffee (or coffee in general) to one’s risk of cancer, and there is plenty of research.
The amount of acrylamide in coffee varies, and is quite small compared to amounts found to cause cancer in animals. In addition, there are other sources of acrylamide exposure no one is making a fuss over, including bread, potato chips and breakfast cereals. It’s also found in cigarettes.
While future research could find a link between coffee and cancer, there’s no particular reason to expect that to happen. In the meantime, if you are worried about acrylamide, you can limit your exposure to it by not smoking and by eating less fried, burnt or charred foods.
Also avoid coffee substitutes and instant coffee, which contain higher amounts of acrylamide than regular coffee.
Perhaps we will discover ways of reducing or even eliminating acrylamide in the coffee roasting process. But it’s not clear that changing how coffee is roasted will actually improve your health.
As is so often the case with potentially carcinogenic toxins, we’ll need additional research to determine whether the amount of acrylamide in coffee and other foods and drinks matters a little, a lot, or not at all.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, visit www.health.harvard.edu.
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